How Framing Effects Can Be Your Friend

Framing effects can be tools for decision-making.

Posted Oct 24, 2020

Photo by Angele J from Pexels
Source: Photo by Angele J from Pexels

It’s a robust finding that people react differently to meat depending on how it is labeled. In well-known experiments, subjects rated ground beef that was 25% lean as both higher quality and significantly less greasy than ground beef labeled as 75% fat. And then in follow-up studies when subjects were actually given samples to taste, the lean meat was preferred.

This classic framing effect is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Psychologists and behavioral economists have come up with an almost uncountable series of experiments in which people are induced to rate or value the same thing differently depending on how it is framed. You might think: What could be more irrational? And you’d be in good company. Being susceptible to framing effects is a standard example of irrationality in textbooks, and there is a small industry of investment books explaining how framing effects can severely damage your financial health.

But this is a situation in which easy cases make bad law. Outside the laboratory, there are many situations when it is perfectly rational to be influenced by how things are framed — and many situations, in fact, when being able to frame something in multiple ways is a powerful tool for understanding and making decisions. 

Self-Control

Almost by definition, people have problems with self-control when they want something that’s right in front of them more than they want a long-term goal or project: You want the drink in front of you more than you want tomorrow morning’s clear head and early start. But if that’s the case then how is self-control even possible? Aren’t you always going to do what you most want to do?

Framing and reframing is one good strategy. Rethink the drink to take away its attractiveness. Focus on what foregoing the drink will make possible. Remember the last hangover you had. Concentrate on what you want to do tomorrow morning, and then reflect upon all the things that will become possible if you make an early start.

People who are good at exercising self-control are good at doing all these things. And really what they are doing is creating their very own framing effect. They come to value the same thing differently depending on how it is framed.  

Overcoming Polarization

Why is our political culture so divided? People often say that the divisions are all on values issues. But when you drill down, values often span political and cultural divides. Gun control is a so-called values issue, but both sides typically share the same basic values. Whether you are an advocate of gun rights or of gun control, you care about freedom, safety, and rights.

So where do the differences come from? In how the issues and values are framed. For one side, safety is personal safety and self-defense. The other often understands safety as the safety of a community. From that perspective, freedom is the freedom to live one’s life in an environment in which deadly weapons are regulated. Others see freedom as a private sphere, surrounded by a line that the government cannot cross. The framing of rights goes the same way: Rights to possess, use, and defend property on the one side, and on the other, rights to live in a society that values collective security.

So how can the divide be crossed? The simple answer is that it won’t be, until we have learned to frame things the way that others frame them. That means not just being able to see that complicated issues can be framed in different ways, but also being able simultaneously to feel the conflicting pull of multiple perspectives. And if someone does this well enough, they will find themselves valuing the same thing differently in different frames. In other words, they will be creating their own framing effect

These and many other examples are featured in my new book Frame It Again: New Tools for Rational Decision-Making.