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Have you ever received instructions that were worded in a way that affected how you went about the task? I have. When drafting instructions for someone, no matter how basic, I always go back and reread said instructions to make sure that they are presented in a way that is easy to understand and framed as positively as possible.
Something as seemingly simple as how information is framed can impact the recipient’s interpretation and reaction. This is known as the framing effect, which was discovered by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It is a cognitive bias that we use when coming to conclusions (for reference, a cognitive bias is essentially a mental shortcut).
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The framing effect itself has to do with how choices are presented, whether it be as loss or as a potential gain. Individuals will react differently when a choice is presented to them as a loss, and they will have a different reaction when that same choice is represented as a gain.
Kahneman and Tversky’s original experiment presented the problem of an impending outbreak in the US of an unnamed Asian disease that would kill 600 people to illustrate how framing works. Two program options were presented to participants:
If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved.
Kahneman and Tversky found that respondents were risk averse in their decision making, with 72% of respondents selecting program A and 28% selecting program B. In other words, you are more likely to avoid a risk when the framing is positive and more likely to take that same risk when framing is negative.
As expected, preferences are risk averse: A clear majority of respondents prefer saving 200 lives for sure over a gamble that offers a one-third chance of saving 600 lives.
A more average day-to-day example where you might see the framing effect is in supermarket ads. These stores present potential customers with both a sale price and the higher comparison price. This provides the consumer with the expected gain of a saving money on an item that they need (or maybe that they just really want).
The framing of the price also plays a role in how it is interpreted. For example, offering “free” items with the purchase of one item can take the focus from the price of what is usually the more expensive item and shift it to the perceived deal. Free shipping or BOGO are two pretty common examples of this.
Victoria’s Secret does this often. Once they get ahold of your email address they flood your inbox with emails stating “Spend $X and get free shipping!” The offer of free shipping is intended to shift your focus away from the higher priced item, which in this case is the X amount of dollars that you need to spend to get the incentive.
Managers can use framing to increase the effectiveness of their communication. Kahneman and Tversky’s research shows that communicating necessary courses of action as potential gains, such as how this specific project will benefit the organization, rather than as a potential loss can impact the decisions made as a result of that communication.
However, as stated by the Harvard Business Review, framing also involves identifying potential problems in workflow prior to them actually occurring and offering solutions to them up front.
A leader skilled at framing anticipates what those obstacles will be and uses framing techniques to help employees navigate around them. The leader begins by isolating the issue and framing it so everyone understands it and its relevance to their own work. Then, she highlights the options for removing the obstacles, either by directly recommending courses of action or by posing questions that guide others to find them.
Essentially, framing makes sure that everyone on your team is on the same page throughout a project.
The basic idea to take away from Kahneman and Tversky’s experiment is that context and tone can make the difference in how your message is both interpreted by and reacted to by your audience. Presenting your audience with a potential gain and emphasizing the positive aspects of what is being offered to them in an appropriate tone is more likely to garner positive results.