Mind & Body

The Framing Effect Shows How Simple Word Swaps Can Secretly Trick Your Brain

Words have power. Don't believe us? Answer us this: Which is worse, getting dumped or breaking up? Which product is better, one that's 95 percent effective, or one that has a 5 percent failure rate? Which is more dangerous, global warming or climate change? The words you choose affect a statement's framing, and that can have big effects on how you make decisions.

Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other

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, 62 percent of participants chose to gamble with the money if the other option was to lose $30, but only 43 percent 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.

Framing in Action

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 percent of the first group chose program A, whereas only 22 percent 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.

To learn more about the framing effect and other things that affect our decisions in unexpected ways, check out "Behavioral Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide" by our partner The Great Courses Plus. Check out a clip from the course below, and watch the rest of this video when you start a free trial here.

How the Framing Effect Works

Partner content from The Great Courses Plus

Written by Ashley Hamer January 31, 2018