Have you been framed? Why "how" something is said is more influential than "what" is said.

A brash, bold and alarming headline the other day read something along the lines of “20% of Australians to refuse jab”. Of course, data being what it is, they could equally have presented the exact same information like this: “80% of Australians happy to get jab”. Notice how the same piece of information gives you an entirely different feeling. One, with its negative focus, feels alarming (if you are a sensible person who does their best not to be taken in by pseudoscience). The other feels encouraging because it is positively stated.

This effect, a cognitive bias called the framing effect, was first described by Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and fellow psychologist Amos Tversky (who unfortunately died before he could have rightly been honoured with the same award).

Their work, in the field of economics, revealed that how information is presented influences how we feel about things, which then influences what decisions we make.

In other words, our decisions are significantly influenced by how the message is presented, rather than what the message actually is.

To illustrate directly, in their work they presented research participants with a hypothetical situation where 600 people have a fatal disease. Participants had to choose whether to offer them a particular treatment. In effective terms the treatment has a 33% chance of success. That is, 200 people will live and 400 people will die if given the treatment. When presented with the information in a positive frame – 200 people will live – 72% of respondents agreed to provide the treatment. When presented in a negative frame – 400 people will die – this dropped to 22%.

Remember, respondents are told the condition is fatal, the implication being that without treatment all 600 will die. But the framing of the message overrides the rational response – which is that any treatment is better than no treatment at all. And the framing of the same facts significantly changes what people will do. Tversky and Kahneman showed that positively framed messages (200 live) leads to risk-taking behaviour (providing a treatment that is only 33% effective). Negatively framed messages (400 die) leads to risk-averse behaviour (no treatment at all).

The implications of this are clear. What you think, believe and as a result do has little to do with you, and rather quite a lot to do with how information is provided. It is one in a myriad of examples that shows that you are less in control of your decision making than you think.

The framing effect is able to manipulate how we feel and the choices we make because of how our brains evaluate information to create judgements. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman posits that we have two different decision-making systems running in our heads: a fast, intuitive one, and a slow, rational one. We often make decisions quickly and intuitively and, feeling confident in the decision, do not give time for our more rational, reason-based thinking processes to catch up. As a result, we are subject to many cognitive biases – short cuts, or heuristics, in our thinking – that influence what we think, believe and do, and which can lead us to make poor judgements. The framing effect is just one such example.

The framing effect is well understood by marketers, who wisely use it to highlight specific features to grow sales.

A disinfectant that kills 95% of germs still leaves 5% around to infect the unwary. However, even those who would claim to be rational decisions makers are more likely to purchase the one that claims “kills 95% of germs” rather than one that claims “only 5% of germs survive”. In the same way, you’re more likely to choose the “90% fat-free yoghurt” than the one containing “only 10% fat”. Same product, but the way it is presented leads to staggeringly different feelings (and actions).

We have heuristics because they are valuable.

Having to laboriously think through every decision (and we make a lot of them all the time) would paralyse us. Being swayed by the framing of a message often doesn’t matter. In the case of bug spray and yoghurt, for example. And they can be used by to good effect to reduce speeding or to make healthier food choices.

But sometimes it does matter. Because they can equally be manipulated by right wing politicians, would-be cult leaders and investment bankers to drive conflict, division or poor financial decisions.

Being aware that your decisions are influenced, significantly, by how information is being provided can at least give you pause where it might matter, to slow down your decision making and activate your rational thinking capabilities. Being able to recognise the framing of a message goes some way, at least, to being able to make more active, conscious decisions.

Sharlene Zeederberg, March 2021

Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash