Framing Effect in Psychology

Take-home Messages

  • The framing effect is the cognitive bias wherein an individual’s choice from a set of options is influenced more by how the information is worded than by the information itself.
  • The prospect theory is crucial to understanding the framing effect; it describes how individuals evaluate their losses and acquire insight in an asymmetric fashion.
  • The two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are responsible for introducing both the framing effect and the prospect theory.
  • The framing effect increases with age, and has been observed in a variety of contexts ranging from plea-bargaining to choosing cancer treatments.
  • Thorough investigation, a critical and analytical approach to information, and the consideration of a diversity of opinions may help avoid the framing effect.

The framing effect can be described as a cognitive bias wherein an individual’s choice from a set of options is influenced more by the presentation than the substance of the pertinent information (Plous, 1993).

The salience of certain features over others, as well as the positive or negative connotations pertaining to the information, is more likely than the actual information itself to determine the recipient’s response.

Moreover, individuals are more likely to desire risks when the information is framed negatively, but seek to avoid risks when the information is framed positively (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981).


Following are some instances wherein the framing of the same information can lead a person to choose one option over another:

  • While looking for a disinfectant, you choose a product which claims to kill 95% of all the germs, over one which claims that 5% of the germs will survive.
  • You’re concerned about your blood sugar level, and you choose a chocolate that is ‘90% sugar-free’ over one that is ‘10% sugar.’
  • You are required to decide between two elective courses for your final semester in college. You are determined to maintain your high GPA, and you talk with the professor of each class. One tells you that 20% of the students procure A’s while the other tells you that 80% of the students fail to get an A. You choose the former over the latter.

Prospect Theory

Essential to a deeper understanding of the framing effect is the prospect theory.

The prospect theory, originally developed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1979, is a psychological theory of choice (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).

It describes how people evaluate their losses and acquire insight in an asymmetric fashion. Unlike the expected utility theory which models the decision making of perfectly rational agents, the prospect theory aims to describe the actual conduct of individuals, and finds application in behavioral finance and economics.

The prospect theory holds that individuals are more influenced by the possibility of a loss than the prospect of an equivalent gain (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981).

Moreover, while a probabilistic deprivation is favored over a sure deprivation, a definite gain is preferred to a probabilistic gain.

Herein, the framing effect becomes manifest when individuals are offered various options within the context of merely one of the frames (Druckman, 2001).

Origins of the Framing Effect

In 1981, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky studied how various means of phrasing the same information influenced the responses to a hypothetically life and death situation (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981).

The participants of the study were asked to choose between two options for treatment for 600 people afflicted with a fatal disease.

The first option was likely to result in the deaths of 400 people. The second option, on the other hand, had 66% possibility of everyone dying and a 33% possibility of no one dying.

These two options were then presented to the participants of the study with either a negative framing (describing how many would die), or a positive framing (relating how many would live).

Of the participants, 72% chose the first option for treatment when it was framed positively, i.e., as saving 200 lives. However, only 22% chose the same option when it was framed negatively, i.e., as resulting in the deaths of 400 people.

The results of the experiment demonstrated that choices which people make when they are offered options to choose from are influenced not merely by the substance of the information but also by the framing thereof.


Plea Bargaining

An analysis of plea-bargaining literature has yielded results unveiling the impact of framing on the criminal justice system (Bibas, 2004). Conventional wisdom holds that parties may strike a plea bargain in light of expected trial outcomes.

According to this view, following a forecast of the anticipated sentence, the parties would deduct from it the possibility of exoneration, and offer a proportional discount.

This conventional model however, notably ignores the heuristics and the psychological biases which may warp the decision making process. Among these biases are loss aversion, risk preferences and framing which can significantly shape the bargaining outcomes.

While skillful lawyering may ameliorate some biases, evidence suggests that the impact of framing remains a crucial component in the process.


A study eliciting attention was conducted employing a natural field experiment to analyze the framing effect (Gächter, Orzen, Renner & Stamer, 2009).

The participant pool for this experiment comprised experimental economists, a group which one might perceive to be cognizant of, and therefore, resistant to the framing effect.

The experiment was administered during the runup to a conference the participants were to attend. To ascertain whether the participants’ decision to pay for the conference would be influenced by the framing of the payment information, the participants were divided into two treatment groups.

The first group was presented the information concerning the difference between early and late payment fees in a positive frame as a discount. The second group was given the same information in a negative frame as a late penalty.

The results indicated that while the junior experimental economists were influenced by the framing effect, the more senior economists were not.

Can Advice Overcome the Framing Effect?

A research study by James Druckman of the University of Minnesota sought to investigate how framing effects may be reduced or overcome (Druckman, 2001).

Druckman utilized two experiments to demonstrate the role of advice on how individuals should decide when various options are offered.

The first experiment used a variation of the experiment of Kahneman and Tversky described above: choosing a hypothetical treatment for 600 people with a fatal disease. The variation herein incorporated advice by way of ideological approval via party endorsement; while one option was the Republicans’ program, the other was the Democrat’s program.

The second experiment presented the participants a hypothetical choice between surgery and radiation to treat lung cancer, along with a recommendation from specialists from two prominent medical research organizations on which option to choose.

Results from both the experiments seem to indicate that recommendation or endorsement from a supposedly credible source could dramatically decrease or even eliminate the framing effect.

In other words, when either a Republican or a Democrat realizes that one option has been endorsed by his/her party, how the option was framed did not matter as much.

Likewise, when a specialist’s recommendation was upon one option over another, the wording of the choices could not significantly influence the decision-making of the participant.

The Framing Effect in a Foreign Language

A notable study which analyzed the framing effect in a foreign language produced interesting results (Keysar, Hayakawa & An, 2012).

A merely intuitive approach might suggest that the framing effect remains constant despite the language, or perhaps that the difficulty associated with a foreign tongue may in fact amplify the framing effect because the challenges in comprehension could make the decision-making process less systematic.

However, research demonstrates that employing a foreign language actually reduces decision-making biases. Results from 4 experiments showed that when various options for choice were presented to the participants in their native tongue, they were risk seeking for losses and risk averse for gains.

However, when the same options were offered in a foreign tongue the participants were immune to this framing manipulation. This outcome suggests that the framing effect vanishes when the choices are presented in a foreign language.

Two additional experiments demonstrated that employing a foreign language could increase the acceptance of real and hypothetical bets with positive expected value by reducing loss aversion. The greater emotional and cognitive distance afforded by a foreign language seems to account for these outcomes.

Age and the Framing Effect


The impact of framing upon the decision-making processes of children seem to increase as they grow (Reyna & Farley, 2006).

For instance, while preschoolers tend to base their decisions on quantitative properties like the probability of a certain result, elementary schoolers tend to rely on qualitative reasoning, choosing surer options for gains within a positive frame, and riskier options within a negative frame notwithstanding the probability.

This increase in qualitative reasoning is associated with a rise in “gist based” thinking which is correlated with age (Reyna, 2008).


While adolescents are more likely to be influenced by the framing effect than are children, their susceptibility to the phenomenon is not as strong as those of adults (Strough, Karns & Schlosnagle, 2011).

Adolescents tend to opt for riskier choices under both loss and gain framing situations (Albert & Steinberg, 2011).

One explanation for this outcome is that adolescents, unlike adults, lack actual real-life experiences of negative repercussions, and therefore, depend too heavily upon conscious risk-benefit analyses which rely on the specific details associated with quantitative evaluation (Schlottmann & Tring, 2005).

This diminishes the influence of the framing effect and induces more consistency between positive and negative frames.


Adults are more susceptible to framing effects than are children and adolescents.

For instance, a research study of undergraduate students discovered that they are more likely to eat meat labeled 75% lean meat rather than 25% fat (Revlin, 2012).

Moreover, research suggests that undergraduate students are more willing to buy an item after losing an equivalent amount of money rather than the item itself.
Among adults, however, older adults are more likely to be influenced by the framing effect than are young adults (Peters, Finucane, MacGregor & Slovic, 2000).

A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that because aging is correlated with the decline of cognitive capabilities, older people tend to lean on less cognitively demanding means when making decisions (Thomas & Millar, 2011).

As such, they are more likely to depend upon readily accessible information and even frames. For instance, research shows that the decision-making of older adults on medical issues is shaped more by how doctors frame the available options than the actual difference between such options.

Moreover, when choosing cancer treatments, framing may shift their focus from short-term to long-term survival (Erber, 2013).

Research also indicates that when presented with a particular treatment, older adults are more likely to choose that treatment if it is described positively, than if it is described either negatively or neutrally (Peters, Finucane, MacGregor & Slovic, 2000).

Furthermore, an evaluation of older adults’ ability to remember information from pamphlets on health care matters shows that older adults tend to recall positively worded statements more accurately than negatively worded ones (Löckenhoff, 2011).

How to Avoid the Framing Effect

The discussion above, which unveils how the framing effect works, also points to us how it could be avoided. Following are some approaches we can devise to make decisions devoid of biases:

  • Closely examine the information on advertisements, and distinguish the raw details from the alluring embellishments employed to entice consumers.
  • When presented a fact with a negative or positive connotation, try to mentally rephrase it to produce the contrary connotation before deciding.
  • Before choosing from a variety of options, research and acquire as much information as possible about each option from a broad array of sources, seeking both critical and friendly evaluations of each option.
  • When a certain political candidate is demonized by some media outlets, seek alternative opinions of the candidate from those who actively support him/her before forming an opinion of the candidate.


Albert, D., & Steinberg, L. (2011). Judgment and decision making in adolescence Journal of Research on Adolescence 21 (1), 211-224.

Bibas, S. (2004). Plea bargaining outside the shadow of trial.  Harvard Law Review, 2463-2547.

Druckman, J. N. (2001). Evaluating framing effects Journal of economic psychology 22 (1), 91-101.

Druckman, J. N. (2001). Using credible advice to overcome framing effects.  Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 17 (1), 62-82.

Erber, J. T. (2012).  Aging and older adulthood . John Wiley & Sons.

Gächter, S., Orzen, H., Renner, E., & Starmer, C. (2009). Are experimental economists prone to framing effects? A natural field experiment.  Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 70 (3), 443-446.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (2013). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk . In  Handbook of the fundamentals of financial decision making: Part I  (pp. 99-127).

Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S. L., & An, S. G. (2012). The foreign-language effect: Thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases.  Psychological science 23 (6), 661-668.

Löckenhoff, C. E. (2011). Age, time, and decision making: from processing speed to global time horizons.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1235, 44.

Peters, E., Finucane, M. L., MacGregor, D. G., & Slovic, P. (2000). The bearable lightness of aging: Judgment and decision processes in older adults.  The aging mind: Opportunities in cognitive research, 144-165.

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Revlin, R. (2012).  Cognition: Theory and practice. Macmillan.

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Reyna, V. F., & Farley, F. (2006). Risk and rationality in adolescent decision making: Implications for theory, practice, and public policy.  Psychological science in the public interest 7 (1), 1-44.

Schlottmann, A., & Tring, J. (2005). How children reason about gains and losses: Framing effects in judgement and choice.  Swiss Journal of Psychology 64 (3), 153-171.

Strough, J., Karns, T. E., & Schlosnagle, L. (2011). Decision-making heuristics and biases across the life span.  Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1235, 57.

Thomas, A. K., & Millar, P. R. (2012). Reducing the framing effect in older and younger adults by encouraging analytic processing.  Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 67 (2), 139-149.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice science 211 (4481), 453-458.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Ayesh Perera


B.A, MTS, Harvard University

Ayesh Perera has worked as a researcher of psychology and neuroscience for Dr. Kevin Majeres at Harvard Medical School.