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The framing effect, one of the cognitive biases, describes that presenting the same option in different formats can alter people's decision making and choice behavior. Specifically, individuals have a tendency to select inconsistent choices, depending on whether the question is framed to concentrate on losses or gains (Plous, 1993).
A set of experiments on framing performed by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1981) indicated that different phrasing affected participants' responses to a question about a disease prevention strategy. The first problem given to participants offered two alternative solutions for 600 people affected by a hypothetical deadly disease:
- option A saves 200 people's lives
- option B has a 33% chance of saving all 600 people and a 66% possibility of saving no one
These decisions have the same expected value of 200 lives saved, but option B is risky. 72% of participants chose option A, whereas only 28% of participants chose option B.
The second problem, given to another group of participants, offered the same scenario with the same statistics, but described differently:
- if option C is taken, then 400 people die
- if option D is taken, then there is a 33% chance that no people will die and a 66% probability that all 600 will die
However, in this group, 78% of participants chose option D (equivalent to option B), whereas only 22% of participants chose option C (equivalent to option A).
The discrepancy in choice between these parallel options is in essence the framing effect; the two groups favored different options because the options were expressed employing different language. In the first problem, a positive frame emphasizes lives gained; in the second, a negative frame emphasizes lives lost. The alterations in the language underlie the differences in the preferences.
Framing impacts people because individuals perceive losses and gains differently, as illustrated in prospect theory (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). The value function, founded in prospect theory, illustrates an important underlying factor to the framing effect: a loss is more devastating than the equivalent gain is gratifying (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Thus, people tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Additionally, the value function takes on a sigmoid shape, which indicates that gains for smaller values are psychologically larger than equivalent increases for larger quantities (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Another important factor contributing to framing is certainty effect and pseudocertainty effect in which a sure gain is favored to a probabilistic gain (Clark, 2009), but a probabilistic loss is preferred to a definite loss (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). For example, in Tversky and Kahneman's (1981) experiment, in the first problem, treatment A, which saved a sure 200 people, was favored due to the certainty effect.
Frame analysis has been a significant part of scholarly work on topics like social movements and political opinion formation in both sociology and political science. Political options can be framed in a way that promotes voters to prefer a certain alternative. For instance, people prefer an economic agenda when high employment rates are provided, but they are against it when the complementary unemployment rates are accentuated (Druckman, 2001b). Additionally, Rugg (as cited in Plous, 1993) exhibited a framing effect in a poll in which the same option was expressed differently. Rugg (as cited in Plous, 1993) discovered that 62% of people disagreed with allowing public condemnation of democracy, but only 46% of people agreed to forbidding public condemnation. The framing effect accounts for the 16% disparity in these effectively congruent decisions (as cited in Plous, 1993). Therefore, framing could have negative social and political implications. Druckman (2001b) also conveys that these effects could discredit public opinion, rendering polls as dubious sources of information.
Certain types of payment options may also be able to employ the framing effect to encourage people to pay at an earlier date. For example, PhD students demonstrated susceptibility to framing when reminded to pay a mandatory registration fee (Gätcher Orzen, Renner, & Stamer, in press). Specifically, Gätcher et al. (in press) reported 93% of PhD students registered early when presented a loss frame, described as a penalty fee, as opposed to 67% students registering early when presented a positive frame in the form of a discount.
It has been argued that pretrial detention may increase a defendant's willingness to accept a plea bargain, since imprisonment, rather than freedom, will be his baseline, and pleading guilty will be viewed as an event that will cause his earlier release rather than as an event that will put him in prison.
One of the dangers of framing effects is that in the reality, people are often only provided options within the context of one of the two frames (Druckman, 2001a). Furthermore, framing effects may persist even when monetary incentives are provided (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Thus, individuals' decisions may be malleable through manipulation with the framing effect, and the consequences of framing effects may be inescapable. However, Druckman (2001b) conveys that the framing effects and their societal implications may be emphasized more than they should be. This notion is reflected, as he demonstrated that the effects of framing can be reduced, or even eliminated, if ample, credible information is provided to people (Druckman, 2001b).
- (2001a). Evaluating framing effects. Journal of Economic Psychology 22: 96–101.
- (2001b). Using credible advice to overcome framing effects. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 17: 62–82.
- (2009) Framing effects exposed, Pearson Education.
- Gätcher, S., Orzen, H., Renner, E., & Stamer, C. (in press). Are experimental economists prone to framing effects? A natural field experiment. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.
- (1993) The psychology of judgment and decision making, McGraw-Hill.
- (1981). The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science 211 (4481): 453–458.
- Stephanos Bibas (Jun., 2004). Plea Bargaining outside the Shadow of Trial 117 (8): 2463–2547.
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