Subscribe via RSS
AdSavvy Logo

The Power Of “Framing Effects” And Other Cognitive Biases


Human beings tend to think they’re rational creatures, and that they make sound decisions based on all the available facts. They think their memory is an accurate record of things that have happened to them. But the reality is that we all have a slew of cognitive biases that can alter our thinking… and even our memories.

Psychologists have names for all the different fallacies and biases that influences our thinking: cognitive dissonance, inattentional blindness, blind spot bias, better-than-average bias, introspection illusion, self-serving bias, attribution bias, representative fallacy, availability fallacy, anchoring fallacy, hindsight bias, and the one I’ll be talking about here: framing effects

The way a question is “framed” often has an influence on how people answer that question, that’s what the term framing effects means. For example, look at this classic study done on framing:

Let’s say you work for the Centers for Disease Control and there is an outbreak of a deadly disease called “The Mojave Flu” in a town of 600 people. All 600 people in the town are expected to die if you do nothing. Let’s say you have come up with two different programs designed to fight to the disease:

With Program 1: 200 people in the town will be saved
With Program 2: There is a 1/3rd probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3rds probability that no people will be saved.

In the study, 72 percent of the subjects picked Program 1. Now consider the same scenario worded differently:

With Program 3: 400 people in the town will die
With Program 4: There is a 1/3rd probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3rds probability that 600 people will die.

Now which do you pick? In the study, 78 percent of the subjects picked Program 4, even though the net result of the second set of choices is exactly the same as the first set (Programs 1 and 3 mean the same thing, and Programs 2 and 4 mean the same thing).

In Aldert Vrij’s book Detecting Lies and Deceit, he describes an even more interesting example:

Participants saw a film of a traffic accident and then answered questions about the event, including the question ‘About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?’ Other participants received the same information, except that the verb ‘contacted’ was replaced by either hit, bumped, collided, or smashed. Even though all of the participants saw the same film, the wording of the questions affected their answers. The speed estimates (in miles per hour) were 31, 34, 38, 39, and 41, respectively.

One week later, the participants were asked whether they had seen broken glass at the accident site. Although the correct answer was ‘no,’ 32% of the participants who were given the ‘smashed’ condition said that they had. Hence the wording of the question can influence their memory of the incident.

That example highlights an unsettling aspect of framing effects, the fact that they can actually influence our memories.

This concept is used in advertising all the time, but the most fertile ground for framing effects is politics. Buzzwords and political terms are constantly changing and being invented to try to stay on the positive side of public opinion.

Frank Luntz is a well-known example of a political consultant who has tried to work with Republican candidates on framing various talking points and buzzwords to make them more appealing to the general public. Among other things, Luntz is responsible for the re-framing of the term “global warming” to “climate change”.

Framing effects are powerful, they have a profound influence on people, but when we recognize that these biases exist, we can gain some measure of control. We all have to understand how fragile our brains and memories are, and that will strengthen them. If we know these biases exist, it’s easier to try to avoid them. So the next time you hear a politician speaking or an advertisement telling you to buy some product, listen closely to it, and try to decipher it’s real content. It’s one more step toward the eventual goal of overcoming bias.