Framing effect

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The framing effect is our cognitive bias towards forming judgements that are significantly affected by the framing of the information on which they’re based. For example, in one classic experiment[1], subjects were asked to imagine that there’s an impending epidemic that’s expected to kill 600 people, and that there are two alternative programs available for combatting the disease. The expected outcome of each program is as follows:

  • If program A is implemented, then 200 people will be saved.
  • If program B is implemented, then there’s a one third probability that all 600 people will be saved, and a two thirds probability that no one will be saved.

When the subjects were asked which program they would choose, 72% chose program A. However, another set of subjects were presented with the same options, but framed in terms of the number of people who will die, rather than be saved:

  • If program A is implemented, then 400 will die.
  • If program B is implemented, then there’s a one third probability that no one will die, and a two thirds probability that all 600 people will die.

This time, 78% of the subjects chose program B.

The framing effect is actually a form of availability bias, and can therefore be explained by credulism, the certainty of belief, and the speed of the brain. Regarding the above example, consider each framing of the options.

The first framing involves the following choice:

certain positive (A)         versus         unlikely positive or likely negative (B)

whereas the second framing involves the following choice:

certain negative (A)        versus        unlikely positive or likely negative (B).

Based solely on these comparisons, A is obviously preferable to B in the first framing, whereas the reverse is true in the second. And, for each framing, the above simple comparison of the options will tend to enter our thought processes before a more detailed, and therefore complex, comparison can even begin. That is, the simple comparison tends to be more readily available to our thought processes than a more complex one, given the former’s greater simplicity. And the preferability of one program over the other, based on this simple comparison, will, given both its obviousness and the speed of the brain, also tend to enter our thought processes, via our reasoning or imagination, before a more detailed, and therefore complex, comparison can even begin. And, given credulism, we believe this preferability upon it entering our thought processes, and, as explained in Confirmation bias - in the section Belief is self-preserving - the certainty of belief will then effectively provide a degree of protection to our belief, directly and via the confirmation bias. Specifically, while our certainty exists, we’re unlikely to question our judgement, and are therefore biased against undertaking a more complex comparison, which could override the influence of the framing of the choice on our judgement. Thus, our judgement about which program is preferable is significantly affected by the framing of the choice, due to availability bias.

Regarding the first framing, the likelihood of us changing our likely initial judgement that program A is preferable to program B will increase as the magnitude, or likelihood, of the potential positive of A decreases, or as the magnitude, or likelihood, of the potential positive of B increases, or as the magnitude, or likelihood, of the potential negative of B decreases, or a combination of these possibilities - and similarly for the likelihood of us changing our likely initial judgement based on the second framing.

In short, the framing effect occurs because different framings of the same information initially provide us with different information, and, given availability bias, we therefore tend to jump to different conclusions.


Sources

  1. Tversky, A., and Kahneman, D., 1981, 'The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice', Science, volume 211, number 4481, pages 453–58.