The Framing Effect Shows How Word Choice Affects Your Decisions

Brilliance | Dec. 09, 2017

Here's a thought experiment: imagine you have just been given $50. You can either gamble that money and see what you get with it, or choose to not gamble and instead lose $30 of it. Which would you choose? What if, instead, your options were to gamble or to keep $20? In a 2006 study in the journal Science, 61.6% of participants chose to gamble with the money if the other option was to lose $30, but only 42.9% of people chose to gamble if the other option was to keep $20. That is, of course, despite the fact that the second option in both scenarios leaves the participant with $20. This shows the power of the framing effect: setting up a question in a way that makes someone think about losing something will make them come to a different decision than if the question made them think about keeping something.

This plays out in bigger decisions, too. A 1981 paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman describes the results of a questionnaire in which college students had to decide what to do about a theoretical disease outbreak that's expected to kill 600 people. In a scenario presented to one group, program A will save 200 people and program B has a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. Another group got the negative version: program C will kill 400 people, and program D has a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. 72% of the first group chose program A, whereas only 22% of the second group chose program C. That's because program A, while identical to program C, is framed as risk aversion (it will save 200 people!) and program C is framed as risk taking (it will kill 400 people!).

The framing effect has real consequences in everyday life. Should a driver be punished less if their car "contacted" another car than if it "smashed" another car? Are you more likely to buy a product that costs $30 or the same product that costs $50 but comes with a $20 gift card? We make hundreds of decisions every day, and it's important to be aware of how easily those decisions are manipulated. Learn more about decisions in the videos below.

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