What Is the Framing Effect? | Definition & Examples

The framing effect occurs when people react differently to something depending on whether it is presented as positive or negative. In other words, our decision is influenced by how the information is presented rather than what is being said.

Example: Framing effect
While doing your groceries, you see two different beef products. Both cost and weigh exactly the same. One is labeled ‘80% lean’ and the other ‘20% fat’.

Comparing the two, you feel that 20% fat sounds like an unhealthy option, so you choose the 80% lean option. In reality, there is no difference between the two products, but one sounds more appealing than the other due to the framing effect.

The framing effect

The framing effect can impact our decision-making skills and can be observed in a number of contexts and fields (e.g., psychology, political communication, and marketing).

What is the framing effect?

The framing effect is a type of cognitive bias or error in thinking. ‘Framing’ refers to whether an option is presented as a loss (negative) or a gain (positive).

People are generally biased toward picking an option they view as a gain over one they view as a loss, even if both options lead to the same result. They are also more likely to make a riskier decision when the option is presented as a gain, as opposed to a loss.

Example: Framing effect loss vs. gain
Suppose you are looking for a jacket online and encounter two offers:

  • Option A costs the full retail price of $100
  • Option B is on sale for 50% off the full retail price of $200

Even though both offers cost the same, option B would likely lead to more sales. The first offer frames the purchase as a loss of $100, while the second offer gives the customer the illusion that they are saving $100 by choosing this option. Because it is framed as a gain, customers are more likely to purchase the second jacket.

Why does the framing effect happen?

The framing effect is a result of different mental processes that take place when we are faced with a decision. Here are a few of the mechanisms that can help explain why the framing effect occurs:

  • Loss aversion: people value a certain gain more than a probable gain, even if the probable gain has a greater expected value. The pain of losing is emotionally taxing and something we try to avoid. Due to this, information with a certain gain is more appealing to us, even though we don’t realise it. We prefer positive frames, and framing influences how probable a gain or loss is.
  • The availability heuristic: due to our limited ability to process information at any given moment, our minds default to choices that demand less resources. That is why, when faced with a decision, we rely upon knowledge that is readily available rather than examine other alternatives. When we are presented with options that are clearly framed, we are more inclined to choose them.
  • The affect heuristic: decision-making is not a purely rational process. We also rely on our emotions. This explains why appeals to emotion work: when an option is framed in such a way as to elicit an affective reaction, we tend to favor that.

Framing effect examples

Framing is often used in political communication to influence how an event or policy is perceived.

Example: Framing effect and politics
‘Tax relief’ is a term often used to refer to ‘tax cuts’. By framing taxes in this way, politicians emphasise their burdensome qualities, while any benefits coming from them, such as social programs, are ignored.

The popularisation of the term has made it more difficult for opponents of tax cuts to get their argument across. ‘Tax cuts’ is an emotionally neutral term, while ‘tax relief’ is emotionally charged. It evokes the image of an oppressor burdening people with heavy taxes. Even though both terms mean the same thing, it is far more difficult to be against ‘tax relief.

In general, framing helps politicians communicate their ideas by highlighting some parts of an issue while ignoring others.

The framing effect can also play a role in medical decisions, for example, when evaluating the effectiveness of a treatment.

Example: Framing effect and medical decisions
In a study among undergraduate students, respondents were presented with the following medical decision-making problem, described with both a positive and a negative frame. Responses were recorded on a 6-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (very bad) to 6 (very good).

  • Positive: 100 patients took the medicine, and 70 patients got better. How would you evaluate the drug’s effect?
  • Negative: 100 patients took the medicine, and 30 patients didn’t get better. How would you evaluate the drug’s effect?

The results revealed that the framing influenced the evaluation: when the drug’s effect was described with a loss frame (30 patients didn’t get better), respondents gave negative evaluations. When the effect was described with a gain frame (70 patients got better), respondents gave positive evaluations.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions about the framing effect

What is the framing effect in polling?

In survey research, such as political polling, the way questions are worded or the order in which answers are presented can influence how respondents answer the questions. This is called the framing effect.

For example, if voters are asked to select which of two candidates they plan to vote for, the order in which the candidates are listed affects the percentage of respondents selecting each candidate. Recognising the potential for research bias, researchers typically rotate which major candidate is listed first and which is listed second.

What is the framing effect in advertising?

The framing effect is often used in advertising to positively influence consumer choice.

One common type of frame is ‘gain framing‘. This shows consumers how they are going to benefit from a product or service. For example, dental care product advertisements use gain framing to display the benefits of using their product: white teeth, healthy gums, fresh breath, etc.

Apart from the obvious benefits, ads using the framing effect often imply other benefits, such as how a better-looking smile makes one more attractive to potential dating partners.

What is the framing effect in economics?

Because of the framing effect, the way information is presented to us influences how attractive a proposition is.

Suppose you are considering joining a gym. A membership at £500 per year sounds like a considerable investment and might prevent you from signing up immediately. However, if they tell you it costs just £1.37 per day and emphasize that this is less than the cost of a cup of coffee, you might think it’s a great offer, even though in reality both offers cost you the same.

What are common types of cognitive bias?

Cognitive bias is an umbrella term used to describe the different ways in which our beliefs and experiences impact our judgment and decision making. These preconceptions are ‘mental shortcuts’ that help us speed up how we process and make sense of new information.

However, this tendency may lead us to misunderstand events, facts, or other people. Cognitive bias can be a source of research bias.

Some common types of cognitive bias are:

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, June 25). What Is the Framing Effect? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 14 May 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/bias-in-research/the-framing-effect/

Sources

Goldin, J. & Reck, D. l. (2014). Framing Effects in Survey Research: Consistency-Adjusted Estimators. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://law.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/framing-effects-2_25_15.pdf

Hughes, K., Thompson, J., & Trimble, J. E. (2016). Investigating the Framing Effect in Social and Behavioral Science Research: Potential Influences on Behavior, Cognition and Emotion. Social Behavior Research and Practice – Open Journal, 1(1), 34–37. https://doi.org/10.17140/sbrpoj-1-106

Peng, J., Li, H., Miao, D., Feng, X., & Xiao, W. (2013). Five Different Types of Framing Effects in Medical Situation: A Preliminary Exploration. Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, 15(3), 161–165. https://doi.org/10.5812/ircmj.8469

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.