Most of the time, we are not aware of the effect that the way information is presented to us has on our responses or opinions, to the extent that we choose options that are not always beneficial but that at first sight are not perceived as a loss.

This is what happens with the framework effect, a type of cognitive bias that we will talk about throughout this article. In the same way we will review those factors that influence it, as well as the causes of it.

What is the frame effect?

The framework effect is a psychological phenomenon that belongs to the group of cognitive biases. A cognitive bias refers to an alteration in the mental processing of information that results in an inaccurate or distorted interpretation of reality.

In the specific case of the framework effect, the person tends to offer a particular answer or choice depending on how the information is presented or on the way the question is asked .

That is to say, the response or predilection of the subject when faced with a dilemma will depend on the way in which it is posed, this being the “framework” of the question.

When this answer or choice is related to profit or loss, people tend to avoid taking risks when the question or issue is posed in a positive way , while if it is formulated in a negative way the subject is more willing to take risks.

This theory points to the idea that any loss, however great, is more significant to the person than the equivalent gain. Furthermore, according to this assumption there are a number of principles that apply when a person must make such a choice:

  • An insured gain is favored over a probable gain.
  • A probable loss is preferable to a definite loss.

The main problem and one of the biggest dangers of the framework effect is that, in most cases, people only receive options in relation to profit or loss , not profit/gain or loss/loss.

This concept helps to facilitate the understanding of the analysis of frameworks within social movements, as well as the formation of political opinions in which the way questions are asked in opinion polls condition the response of the respondent. In this way, the aim is to achieve a beneficial response for the organization or institution that has commissioned the survey.

Tversky and Kahneman’s study

The best way to understand this framework effect is by reviewing the results of studies that analyse it. One of the best known investigations was carried out by Stanford University psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman .

In this work we tried to demonstrate how the way in which different phrases and situations are posed conditions the response or reaction of the respondents, in this specific case, in relation to a plan for the prevention and eradication of a fatal disease.

The study consisted in the approach of two problems in which different alternatives are provided for saving the lives of 600 people affected by a supposed disease. The first two possibilities were reflected in the following options:

  • Save the lives of 200 people.
  • Choose an alternative solution where the probability of saving all 600 people is 33% but there is a 66% chance of not saving anyone.

The result on this first problem was that 72% of people surveyed chose the first alternative, as they perceived the second as too risky. However, this response dynamic changed in the second phase of the study, in which the following choices were made:

  • 400 people die
  • Choose an alternative where there is a 33% chance that no one will die and a 66% chance that all people will die

In this second case, 78% of the participants chose the second option, since the first one (despite being equivalent to the first problem) was perceived as much more risky.

The explanation can be found in the different expressions used . In the first exposition of the alternatives the choice was named positively (“Save the life of 200 people”), while in the second one a negative consequence was exposed (“400 die”).

Therefore, although the two options involve the same type of consequence, the transformation of the alternatives caused respondents to focus more on either profits or losses. From this point of view, people are inclined to try to avoid risk when the choice is presented in terms of profit, but prefer it when it comes to choosing an option that involves losses.

What causes this phenomenon?

Although there are no defined and demonstrable causes that justify the appearance of this phenomenon, the theorists of cognitive psychology appeal to the imperfection of the reasoning process of people . This defect is defined by the general inability we have to generate multiple alternative formulations of a problem, as well as the consequences of each one of them.

Therefore, the reason why people give in to the framework effect is that most of the time people tend to passively accept choice conflicts as they are framed, so they are not aware that when their choices are conditioned by the framework rather than by their own interests or benefits.