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The Framing Effect Shows How Word Choice Affects Your Decisions

The Framing Effect Shows How Word Choice Affects Your Decisions

Here's a thought experiment: imagine you have just been given $50. You can either gamble that money and see what you get with it, or choose to not gamble and instead lose $30 of it. Which would you choose? What if, instead, your options were to gamble or to keep $20? In a 2006 study in the journal Science, 61.6% of participants chose to gamble with the money if the other option was to lose $30, but only 42.9% of people chose to gamble if the other option was to keep $20. That is, of course, despite the fact that the second option in both scenarios leaves the participant with $20. This shows the power of the framing effect: setting up a question in a way that makes someone think about losing something will make them come to a different decision than if the question made them think about keeping something.

This plays out in bigger decisions, too. A 1981 paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman describes the results of a questionnaire in which college students had to decide what to do about a theoretical disease outbreak that's expected to kill 600 people. In a scenario presented to one group, program A will save 200 people and program B has a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. Another group got the negative version: program C will kill 400 people, and program D has a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. 72% of the first group chose program A, whereas only 22% of the second group chose program C. That's because program A, while identical to program C, is framed as risk aversion (it will save 200 people!) and program C is framed as risk taking (it will kill 400 people!).

The framing effect has real consequences in everyday life. Should a driver be punished less if their car "contacted" another car than if it "smashed" another car? Are you more likely to buy a product that costs $30 or the same product that costs $50 but comes with a $20 gift card? We make hundreds of decisions every day, and it's important to be aware of how easily those decisions are manipulated. Learn more about decisions in the videos below.

The Framing Effect

See all the ways this appears in everyday life.

UT McCombs School of Business
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