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  • Scott Bowman

The Framing Effect

"The tendency to make different decisions in the same situation if the options are framed negatively or positively"

I first met the Framing Effect on an episode of The West Wing. Josh, who had just been given some polling data, was pacing the halls saying: “68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut.” Over and over.

Finally someone asks, “You like that stat?"

“I do” he says.


“Because 9% think it's too high, and shouldn't be cut! ... There should be another box you can check for "I have utterly no idea what you're talking about. Please, God, don't ask for my input."

But would we check that box? Absolutely not! Most of the time we have no idea that the frame of a question is directing our response...

600 people are sick with a never-before-seen virus. Which do you use?

Experimental drug A: 200 will be saved

Experimental drug B: A 33% chance of saving all 600 people, 66% possibility of saving no one.

How about in this case?

Experimental drug A: 400 people will die

Experimental drug B: A 33% chance that no people will die, 66% probability that all 600 will die.

Drug ‘A” was chosen in the first case 3 times more often (72%) than in the second case - even though both scenarios are identical.

So what?

Polls often use the Framing Effect to get the desired answers ( didn’t think those politicians were honest did you?). And so can you. When you’re stuck and trying to get yourself to do something challenging or difficult, look at the way you are framing the situation. Are you viewing the situation as an opportunity or a potential loss?

People tend to see a loss as more significant than an equivalent gain, and are more motivated by it than the latter.

“Act now and save $500," doesn’t work as well as “Act now or the price goes up $500."

By extension “Hey that movie we want to see is playing down the street!” won’t work as well as “Let’s go see that movie before it leaves the theaters.”

(What is this? Friend manipulation class? Disgusting!)

Looking at your situation as a potential loss, instead of a potential gain, may boost you into action.

If your challenge is one of taking a risk, keep in mind that we tend to avoid risk if the frame is positive or about gain (maybe something like “I don’t know if it would be worth it to go back to school for that degree...”), but move toward risk if the frame is negative or about loss (“If I don’t go back to school, years will keep going by and nothing will change!"). So as you look at your choices, your hesitations and options, try switching the frame around and see what happens.

If a particular choice is REALLY sensitive to a changing frame and your answer changes each time you recast the question, maybe that’s an issue to think a lot more carefully about and get more information.

Changing the frame is a good way to be sure you are clear on what the situation is and why you are choosing what you're choosing. It's a good way to view it from all the angles and get free of whatever programming (whether your own or someone else's) might be influencing you.

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