OPINION30 June 2015

Bias in the spotlight: framing


Our decisions and preferences are affected by how information is presented to us. How something is framed can make different features more or less front of mind and alter decision-making and behaviour.


This is true even if it’s the same information. For example, framing something as a loss can affect people’s behaviour. One study showed 93% of PhD students registered early when a penalty fee for late registration was emphasised – framing it as a loss, with only 67% registering when this was presented as a discount for earlier registration – framing it as a gain.

Another example, often used to illustrate our susceptibility to framing, asks people to imagine they have lung cancer. A doctor tells them of an operation that could potentially save their life. In one frame he tells them: “Of 100 patients, 10 are dead after five years”.

In another frame he tells them: “Of 100 patients, 90 are alive after five years.”

Even knowing about framing effects, one can’t help but feel more alarmed by the first example.

An excellent example of how framing can affect people’s answers in questioning, opinion polls and surveys is illustrated by the satirical British sitcom Yes Minister. In the clip, Sir Humphrey Appleby uses leading questions to frame national service (mandatory military service for young people) in a positive, and then negative, light.

Watch the 2-minute clip here.

When framing military service in a positive light, Sir Humphrey asks questions such as “are you worried about rising crime among teenagers?” and “Do you think young people welcome some structure and leadership in their lives?”, so by the time he asks the question “Might you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?”, people have the earlier questions top of mind and they are more salient, so are swayed to say yes.

When framing military service in a negative light, asking questions such as “Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people arms and teaching them how to kill?”, by the time he asks the key question “Would you oppose the reintroduction of conscription?” Mr Wooley catches himself saying yes again, completely contradicting himself.

This is a great reminder of how context and presentation can be big determinants in how people respond to information. We all know that it’s not just content that matters – context and presentation are key.

Crawford Hollingworth is founder of The Behavioural Architects