Framing is a concept from the social sciences, specifically from psychology and behavioral economics. It describes how we interpret things differently depending on how they’re presented. Even if the different presentation has nothing to do with the matter at hand.
Understanding this concept will help you see reality as it is. It can also protect you against manipulation and in turn, will make you more persuasive.
The concept is founded on how our brains deal with external stimuli. Associations are the building blocks of thought. We automatically associate the stimulus with our past experiences when we perceive something in the world. This leads to an immediate emotional reaction. This emotion will then influence how we interpret the stimulus in the present.
The framing effect increase if the associated things are more emotionally loaded. Past experiences that were dramatic and are still vivid in our minds have a larger effect. So do stimuli that we encountered frequently and hence, the emotional circuits are fresh and strong in our minds.
The Asian Disease Problem
In the 1980s Kahneman and Tversky posed a survey with the following question:
Imagine that the United States is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:
- A) If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.
- B) If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved.
With this framing of the question, people chose predominately option A. To another set of participants, they framed the choices to the question somewhat differently:
- A) If program A is adopted, 400 people will die.
- B) If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.
The two options are exactly the same as the previous ones, from a logical standpoint. However, they are framed differently. With the second framing, participants chose predominately option B instead of A.
Depending on how the options were framed, participants made completely opposite decisions.
Delivering bad news
Rory Sutherland, chairman of the marketing firm Ogilvy, describes a personal framing experience at an airport. After landing at Gatwick Airport, the plane stopped well before the terminal. Rory knew what this meant: He’d have to go on one of these dreadful airport buses.
However, the pilot’s announcement offered a masterclass in framing. He said:
I’ve got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that another aircraft is blocking our arrival gate, so it’ll have to be a bus; the good news is that the bus will drive you all the way to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk with your bags.
The kicker was, Rory realized, that the bus always drops you close to the passport controls. Nothing changed objectively, but the perception of the bus was suddenly no longer a curse but a bonus. Simply because the framing changed.
Opinion polls and surveys
As a product manager, I have ample experience with surveys. They are often used to discover the needs and pains of users around a product. Unfortunately, a lot of them are badly made because they are heavily framed. In other words, the questions and answer options are already nudging people to certain answers.
These so-called leading questions include implicit assumptions and don’t offer users the possibility to give a nuanced answer. They’re often framed as yes or no questions. Example: “Have you stopped fighting with your partner?” (assuming already that the person filling out the survey has a partner and has been fighting with them).
Not all things related to framing have to be around the wording. Every social interaction we find ourselves in has a frame. There’s an “us-against-them” frame that can often be found in sports or politics. There is a “collaborative” frame with co-workers.
Mixing those frames can lead to severe consequences. For example, if you’d pay your spouse for a cooked dinner it would not go over well. You acted within a “transactional” instead of a “loved one” frame. However, in a restaurant, this behavior would be expected.
Protect yourself against manipulation
Realize that every form of communication and perception involves some kind of framing. Watch out and be aware of the framing effect in situations where the stakes are high, because it makes you irrational. Look at how the information or a certain choice is presented to you. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is it compared with? If a product is shown next to a considerably more expensive one it suddenly seems affordable. If an average person stands next to a supermodel they suddenly seem ugly. Contrast matters.
- What is left out? Is relevant information missing? A graph of financial performance looks completely different depending on the timeframe. If you start after the financial crisis in 2009 you’ll have a wonderful growth curve, if you end there not so much.
- Is the information presented with negative or positive connotations? Remember The Asian Disease Problem: “saves 200 lives” and “400 people will die” makes a difference, even though objectively it’s the same.
Be persuasive and make people happy
Of course, you can also use all those framing techniques to promote your own agenda. I’ll just suggest using them for good.
The pilot delivering the bad news to Rory Sutherland made him see the bright side. What could’ve been a bad experience became a happy one. Since we tend to feel the pain more strongly than the gains, you can use framing to overemphasize the positive aspects of a choice. That way, the framing would help people to be more objective and evaluate the options more rationally.
No limitation. Because of the way we humans work, everything is always framed. The only constraint is how influential any specific framing is on our perception. For a frame to apply one must pay attention to it. Our focus is unitary and distractions take power away from frames. If a frame doesn’t seem relevant to us we won’t have any strong emotional associations.
A camera frame. Different frames are used expertly in movies to tell a story and evoke emotions in the viewer. Depending on how you position the frame different things are shown and the relationship between what is shown changes. Just remember that reality doesn’t stop at the frame.
Authors are conscious framers, too. A crime novel would be rather dull if, from page one, the murder were shown as it happened – stab by stab, as it were. Even though we eventually discover the motives and murder weapons, the novelist’s framing injects thrills and suspense into the story. – Rolf Dobelli
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Shakespeare