Cognitive Biases — Framing Effect

A decision can come across more attractive by highlighting the positive or the negative attributes. The framing effect is certainly one of the most heavily used biases, which is understandable as it has a proven track record. It can be used in all types of situations from priming, to social pressure and emotional appeals.

Beef described as “75% lean” was given higher ratings than beef described as “25% fat” (Levin and Gaeth 1988)

One of the effects that the framing bias has especially for older people is that we tend to avoid risks if something is presented positively. Whilst we are more likely to take risks when a negative frame is presented. Keep this in mind when designing health or financial policies.

Further experiments conducted

In 1979 study, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann proved that the decisions we take are also influenced by the way they are framed. Different wordings, settings, and situations will have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the decision made.

Tversky and Kahneman asked participants in their study to decide between two treatments for 600 people who contracted a fatal disease.

Treatment A would result in 400 deaths, and treatment B had a 33% chance that no one would die but a 66% chance that everyone would die. This was done with either positive framing (how many people would live) or negative framing (how many people would die).

Treatment A received the most support (72%) when framed as saving 200 lives, but dropped significantly (to 22%) when framed as losing 400 lives.

Almost 100% of students registered early when a penalty fee frame was presented for not doing so, compared with just over 65% when it was framed as a discount (Gächter et al., 2009)

In one study, a minority supported the right to “forbid public condemnation of democracy”, but a clear majority opposed allowing “public condemnation of democracy”(Rugg in Plous, 1993).

Economic policies receive higher support when framed in terms of the employment rates rather than unemployment rates. (Druckman, 2001b)

Pre-trial detention can encourage a defendant to accept a plea bargain because imprisonment has now been set as the status quo, and a guilt plea might lead to early release rather than an act that guarantees some prison time (Bibas, 2004).

Why does this happen?

The framing effect is the natural tendency of human perception. Through exposure we have been conditioned and trained to seek out the positive aspect in a more accepting manner, and to avoid or at least take more caution with negative aspects.

Framing effect has also been discussed as a part of the Prospect Theory by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Based on the theory, framing effect affects the investment decisions because a loss is more significant than the equivalent gain, a sure gain is favoured over a probabilistic gain and a probabilistic loss is preferred over a definite loss. So, the investors always look at the picture from an angle that presents gain.

In short: Framing is not about what is said, but how it is said.

How can we be aware of this effect?

The framing effect happens virtually all of the time so it’s almost impossible to avoid. The way to look at it is that advertisers and sellers are trying to paint the best picture of their product framing the benefits of their pitch or/and argument.

Try to evaluate the wording and presentation of the product and go to the extent of re-wording the content to try and identify the underlying negatives. Like the beef example above a company may push to say how it’s 75% lean but re-word it and you’ll then see it’s 25% fat.



Senior Interaction Designer. Living in Cardiff, South Wales, interested in human psychology and behaviours. Writing all sorts of stories that interest me.

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Michael Gearon

Michael Gearon

Senior Interaction Designer. Living in Cardiff, South Wales, interested in human psychology and behaviours. Writing all sorts of stories that interest me.