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10 Examples of Framing Bias

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One of many cognitive biases in psychology is framing bias. The term “framing bias” refers to our propensity to let information presentation affect us.

A salesperson promoting a product would much rather claim “85% of customers were satisfied with the product” than admit “15% of customers were dissatisfied”. But the two statistics actually convey the same information.

Artificial intelligence could avoid the framing effect by focusing just on the substance of data consumed. But people aren’t quite so logical and may, according to Learning Lab, “ignore important facts, instead focusing on side-issues”.

Here are 10 real-world instances where framing bias has led to the deception of at least some people.

Value frames

Value frames are psychological strategies to make us believe we are receiving a better deal or offer than is actually the case. For example, higher numerical values for discounts lead us to believe that we are getting a better deal.

As a percentage, anything under £100, for example, is more tempting. So, a 10% discount on a £10 item is more tempting than a £1 discount.

For products or services costing more than £100, however, the opposite is true. For example, a £50 discount is more tempting than a 10% discount on a £500 item.

Positive and negative frames

When discussing framing effects, the classic image of the glass half full or half empty comes to mind. Advertisers often use contrasting negative and positive frames to sell their products.

For instance, the ad copy might read: “Sugar consumption causes enamel loss (negative frame), but toothpaste X can stop this (positive frame).” This is an example of contrast in marketing. Create the issue (worrisome tooth decay) before presenting the remedy (shiny toothpaste).

Framing as threat or opportunity

According to cognitive and social psychologists, framing an event as a threat to an individual or a community induces fear. In turn, this results in a more intense and energetic response than framing the same situation as an opportunity.

Wilmot Reed Hastings Jr, the founder of Netflix, and his staff portrayed Netflix as a danger to Blockbuster and the media followed suit, helping turn expectation into reality. Unfortunately, Blockbuster fell into the trap too, viewing online DVD renting as a threat to its established, thriving brick-and-mortar business. Blockbuster switched away from its natural position of strength and eventually folded.

Individual effects

The framing effect is evident when we make decisions by focusing on how information is presented rather than the content itself. Critical information or inferior options might be framed in a positive manner, resulting in sub-optimal selections.

Investment is an area where framing bias routinely causes bad choices. Investors can easily get overexcited by the prospects of gains and getting rich. Additionally, they might be suffering from loss fear.

Psychology training, especially being aware of your own tendencies, can be helpful. According to Mallory: Good investors must be capable of being objective and conducting dispassionate research.’

Systemic effects

The framing effect has a significant impact on public opinion. Public affairs and other events that grab public attention can be perceived in a variety of ways, depending on how they are presented.

Due to negative framing, problems or stances that benefit the majority of people can sometimes be seen negatively. Conversely, when their positive features are properly promoted, policy positions and behaviours that advance the public good may become popular.

An example of systemic bias was the Sandmann defamation case. Numerous media outlets depicted footage of a standoff between a teenager and a man as the result of teenage aggression.

In this case, observations that the man was elderly, Native American and a war veteran were highlighted. However, more extensive footage showed that when the man approached the teen, he was actually just minding his own business. Context that had no real bearing on the issue had been used to distort events.

Framing with different reference points

We evaluate our choices in terms of their relative importance and compare them to the alternatives that are available. Hence, reference points matter to us.

Assume you have a balance of £2000 in your bank account. Would you be willing to take a 50/50 risk of losing £300 or winning £500? In an experiment, a sizable number of people declined this offer.

Now, framed differently: Would you be willing to take a 50/50 chance of having £1700 or £2,500 in your account?

Despite the fact that both offers are identical, many people accepted only the second time. The value of £2,500–£1,700 = £800 looks to be bigger and more profitable than the value of £500–£300 = £200.

Auditory frame

Auditory framing is simple to understand. When we are offered two options, the manner in which we are asked might have a big impact on our decision. Are they yelled in a deep, threatening voice or expressed in a soothing manner? The tone can greatly affect our response.

Visual frames

Colour, images, font style, font size, and even body language are all examples of visual frames. Colour, for example, can have a significant impact, with each colour supporting a distinct feature. Pink, for example, is more feminine, so it’s definitely not the best hue to use to sell men’s clothing.

Framing as gain vs loss

Someone’s response to information surrounding a decision can be more affected by particular connotations, associations, fears, and emotions than bare facts. Consider this investment scenario expressed in two different ways.

  • If we buy stock X, we could make a 50% profit if everything goes well.
  • If we buy in stock X, we could lose everything if anything goes wrong and also miss out on 50% profit.

Although we have a situation with a 50% potential gain and a 100% downside risk (as with any investment), how we frame the decision can have a huge impact on whether or not we invest.

Framing the default choice

Humans are wired to prefer the status quo, such that the majority of customers go with the default option even when it may be irrational.

Take this insurance example. In New Jersey, 80% of people chose “restricted right to sue” when purchasing auto insurance. In contrast, only 25% of people in Pennsylvania did the same.

When the two states were compared, it was discovered that government officials had framed the default choice differently. The two states chose opposite options as the default. That led to extremely different outcomes because, in both states, 75–80% of people chose the default that happened to be presented to them.

Andrew Lancaster is the director of Unicurve.

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