Early in my doctoral training at Cornell University, I became immersed in the behavioral decision theory paradigm. Simply put, behavioral decision theorists have spent the past five decades demonstrating that humans do not adhere to the axioms of rational choice as postulated by classical economists. Transitivity of choice preferences is an example of such an axiom: If car A is preferred to car B, and car B is preferred to car C then by transitivity it must be the case that car A is preferred to car C. If a consumer were to violate this axiom, he /she would be engaging in “irrational” choice. In 1969, Amos Tversky, the brilliant Israeli psychologist, demonstrated that individuals do not adhere to this otherwise intuitive axiom. Tversky along with his frequent coauthor Daniel Kahneman went on to dismantle many of the foundational tenets of rational choice theory (i.e., they repeatedly showed that economists were wrong when it comes to our understanding of human decision making). Kahneman went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his joint work with Tversky albeit the latter had tragically passed away in 1996. My own doctoral supervisor, the eminent mathematical and cognitive psychologist J. Edward Russo first published paper was coauthored with Amos Tversky in 1969.
The framing effect is one of the most famous of all violations of rational choice (Tversky & Kahneman, 1986). If I told you that a hamburger is 90% fat free, this is the same thing as telling you that it is 10% fat. Or, if I advised you that 3 out of 5 dentists recommend some toothpaste, this is equivalent to advising you that 2 out of 5 dentists did not recommend it. The two equivalent versions are called frames (e.g., positive versus negative frame). The axiom of descriptive invariance states that people’s preferences and choices should not be affected by such a frame manipulation since the two frames are logically equivalent. And yet, countless studies over the past three decades have shown that people across widely different areas of expertise (e.g., surgeons, lawyers) could be manipulated to alter their preferences simply via the manner in which a problem is framed.
As covered in all of my three books (The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption; The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature; and Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences), the economic definition of rationality is lacking in that it pits the human mind against a mythical creature (Homo economicus) that only exists in the fanciful imagination of classical economists. Rather, a more fruitful endeavor is to examine the evolutionary forces that have shaped human decision making rather than worrying about how our brains are not like those assumed by rational choice theorists. See my 2013 TEDx talk titled The Evolutionary Roots of Human Decision Making; the works of Peter M. Todd, Gerd Gigerenzer, and their Max Planck colleagues (cf. their 2012 book titled Ecological Rationality: Intelligence in the World); and the recent book The Rational Animal, coauthored by Douglas Kenrick, a pioneer of evolutionary psychology along with his highly productive former doctoral student Vladas Griskevicius. The bottom line is that human rationality has to be defined via an understanding of the evolutionary forces that have shaped the human mind.
Against this backdrop, my former doctoral student Tripat Gill and I recently published a paper in Evolution and Human Behavior in which we examined the framing effect from an evolutionary perspective (Saad & Gill, 2014). Specifically, we theorized that the negativity bias, namely that negative information is more influential than its positive counterpart, is sex-specific when it comes to choosing a mate. Parental investment theory postulates that the costs of making a poor mate choice are much greater for women, as such they should be more leery of negatively framed information when evaluating a prospective mate. So here is what we did: We described prospective mates along six focal attributes (in one of two equivalent ways (positive versus negative frame). Take for example, kindness as an attribute. Here are two equivalent ways to state the same thing about a prospective mate.
7 out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is kind [positive frame]
3 out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is not kind [negative frame].
The same manipulation was applied on six focal attributes: attractive body, attractive face, earning potential, ambition, kindness, and intelligence. We chose these focal attributes because the first two are more important to men, the next two are more important to women, and the last two are considered necessities by both sexes.
Note that in the above example, the overall quality of the mate in question is high in that most people thought that he/she is kind. We could alter the quality of the mate to be low and still test for the framing effect as follows:
3 out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is kind [positive frame]
7 out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is not kind [negative frame].
We also manipulated the temporal context of the relationship, namely participants evaluated the prospective mates either for a short-term fling or a long-term relationship. The dependent measure throughout was a 1-9 scale to gauge how likely they would date such a person (not at all to extremely likely).
So to summarize, we had four experimental conditions:
1) Long-Term Relationship, High Quality Mates
2) Long-Term Relationship, Low Quality Mates
3) Short-Term Relationship, High Quality Mates
4) Short-Term Relationship, Low Quality Mates
In addition to hypothesizing the greater proclivity of women to succumb to the framing effect when evaluating prospective mates, we also predicted that men and women would be more likely to exhibit a framing effect on particular attributes as a function of their sex-specific importance (e.g., attractive body for men in evaluating women; earning potential for women when evaluating men).
Here are some of the key findings:
1) Overall, women exhibited stronger framing effects than men.
2) When broken down per condition, women succumbed to the framing effect more than men in three of the four conditions (the Long-Term Relationship, Low Quality Mates condition did not yield a sex difference).
3) Women’s stronger framing effects were due to their greater sensitivity to the negatively framed descriptions.
4) Attribute-level analysis: On 10 out of the 11 attributes where a sex difference in the framing effect was found, women exhibited the greater effect. Attractive face was the attribute on which men exhibited a stronger framing effect whereas women’s stronger framing effects were on attributes that they deem as particularly important in the mating market (e.g., ambition and earning potential).
Bottom line: Viewed via this evolutionary lens, women are not behaving “irrationally” by being more likely to succumb to the framing effect when evaluating prospective mates. Rather, it makes perfect adaptive sense that negatively framed information would weigh so heavily on them when it comes to mate choice.
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