Imagine that the United States is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease that is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:
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.
Which of the two programs would you favor?
The classic example is not a very natural example, however. I certainly hope I will never come across a similar situation! Thankfully, there are also more down-to-earth examples about framing. For example, suppose you are looking for some new dinnerware to buy. Visiting a flea market, you find a nice set of 8 dinner plates, 8 soup bowls and 8 dessert plates. You consider that the set is worth about 32 dollars.
Now, rationally, the set if of course worth more: after all, you get an intact saucer and 7 teacups on top of what you had before. At least it cannot be worth less – you could just throw away the additional pieces (let’s assume no costs are imposed on you by getting or disposing the broken pieces).
In fact, what happened in the experiment in Hsee (1998) was the following. Those who did joint evaluation, ie. they saw both sets (with and without broken pieces) reasoned just as we did above. The set including broken items was worth a little more. In contrast, those doing separate evaluation, ie. seeing only one of the sets, considered the second set to be worth less! In their mind, they compared it to a completely intact set, and thinking “oh, but this has broken items”. Those seeing the smaller, but completely intact set, reasoned “ah, it’s all intact and therefore good”. So a different frame generated a different evaluation of the intact pieces’ worth!
You could argue that the separate evaluators were doing their best – they didn’t know about the option of a similar set with additional pieces. And of course, that is correct. However – and this is why framing is such a sneaky bias – real life consists mainly of separate evaluations. In a store you just get to see that item with some strategically chosen comparison items next to it. When evaluating a business project, you’re mostly stuck with the description that the manager offers.
The only advice I can give about framing is that awareness matters. For example, I’ve come across situations at work when someone is asking me to do a small thing, and I’m thinking if I ought to do it now, or perhaps later. What has helped me to think is recognizing that the simple now/later is just one decisions frame. Often, I felt it’s better to back up to a wider frame and ask myself what I should be focusing in the first place. Sometimes, it turns out that I ought to do something that’s much more vital than the request. And on other occasions, when there are no other critical tasks, it’s perhaps just better to get it done right away.
So, even if I’m repeating myself a bit from last week, it’s a good idea to think about the alternatives at hand – and then question them. Are these really the alternatives? Is there a wider frame with other options? And is the description of the alternatives the only and the most relevant one?
So life is not exatly “What You See is What You Get”. It’s more exactly “What You See is What You Think You’re Getting”. Reminds me of this movie (and notice that Neo didn’t really reflect much on the frame he was given):