You've been framed

“It's not what you said, it's how you said it”

Thank you for joining me for blog 19 in the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

Today's topic is about how the way information is presented to us influences reactions and outcomes. How commonly persuasive (or even manipulative) language works, and what we can do to be aware and potential reduce the chance of making a decision that is not in our best interest.

What is 'framing'

There is a 200ml glass. It has 100ml of water in it. Is the glass half empty or half full? If someone views it as half empty, they are focusing on what is missing and it is said that they are pessimistic, but if they focus on the water in the glass it is an optimistic interpretation. The idea that logically equivalent statements evoke different reactions is the 'framing' effect.

A numerical example of framing

Opportunity A: Would you accept a gamble that offers a 10% chance of winning $95 and a 90% chance to lose $5?

Opportunity B: Would you pay $5 to participate in a lottery that offers a 10% chance to win $100?

The punchline is that this is the same opportunity reframed. When an experiment was done, people were much more likely to accept Opportunity B than Opportunity A. Framing has a material impact not only to the way people view a situation but also to the decisions they make.

The take-away is that people are keen to avoid locking in losses which we have covered in a previous post about loss aversion (Losses versus gains (part 1) (

Why does framing work?

Framing works because humans are loss averse and different parts of the brain react to different presentations of the opportunity.

- A clearly framed possibility of loss evokes a response from the old brain, which is the centre of the brain associated with emotions. This triggers immediate and impulsive decision-making

- More balanced framing evokes a response from the new brain which helps evoke a more rational approach

Some people are less sensitive to framing than others. They seem to react more rationally to various presentations than others.

Framing in real life

Framing is used all over the place, most notably in marketing and politics but also in interviews.

Marketing example

A petrol station group wanted to pass the credit card fee on to customers to encourage them to pay in cash. They first proposed a credit card surcharge onto customer bills, but this was met with stiff opposition from the credit card lobby. After some debate, the agreed approach was to bump up the price for all customers by the credit card fee, and offer a discount for those paying in cash. The credit card lobby wanted to frame this additional cost as a foregone gain which is much more palatable than a realised loss.

Politics example

During the Scottish independence referendum, wording of the question was hotly contested. The Scottish government's preferred question was "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" The Electoral Commission's research found that the "Do you agree" preface made it a leading question. This would lead to more people voting in favour of the referendum. The question was amended to "Should Scotland be an independent country?" which was the most neutral.

Interviews example

In cross-examining a witness or interviewing someone, certain questions are more likely to elicit positive responses. An example of a leading question is “Our food is the best on the market, isn’t it?”, this is much more likely to get a positive response than "Is our food the best on the market?".

Loaded questions are another technique. An example is “Do you really intend to vote for this controversial presidential candidate?”. It is phrased to make someone feel deficient if they answer in a certain way.

Implications in decision-making

The way we are presented information evokes different responses. Surely being "Pro-life" and "Pro-choice" are both good positions to have? They clearly conflict at some points. Having richer dialogue at the edge cases and reframing ideas a number of ways should be done before you come to judgment. Reframing is a key skill in immunising yourself from framing errors.

The recent scandal around Cambridge Analytica using psychological targeting on Facebook to sway election results across the world highlights how easy manipulated we are. We are presented information that has been experimentally proven to produce the most emotional response. Emotional responses are hard to repel and hinder you engaging with an idea rationally.

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week: 1) You might have a different reaction to the same facts presented in different ways, this is calling a framing error. 2) Framing is real, and being used on you by marketers, politicians and anyone else who wants to influence you. 3) You will make fewer framing errors by reframing things people have said to you, to see if presented another way is as powerful. Thank you for joining. Next week is blog 20 and will be 'The habits of good forecasters'.

Interesting follow-up article