Framing a Question *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Most of us do not realize that the same question can be asked in different ways to get different answers. The way you ask a question called "framing" can often influence the response you get. To demonstrate this, we will use a medical problem from a 1981 study by Tversky and Kahmneman.

"Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease are proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:

Which program would you choose? When the programs were framed in this way, Tverksy and Kahneman found that 72% of the respondents chose to save 200 lives rather than take the "all or nothing" risk. However, with a second group of subjects, Tversky and Kahneman framed the alternatives differently.

In contrast to programs A and B, with programs C and D, 78% of the respondents chose to take the riskier alternative of "a 1/3 probability that nobody will die...." Choices A and C are exactly alike. Out of the 600 people, if "400 people will die" from the disease, then "200 people will be saved." Likewise, choices B and D are identical. If there is a "1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved," there is the same probability that out of the 600 "nobody will die."

The difference in responses is not due to the logical difference between each pair of the programs, but to framing. The first set A and B were in a survival frame, choices were given in terms of who survives. In contrast, C and D were given in a mortality frame, in terms of who dies. In the survival frame, people are less likely to take risks to maintain survival. In the mortality frame, risk taking is chosen more often to avoid death.

In another experiment, a medical decision was framed for people who were more directly involved or informed 424 physicians, 491 graduate students who had just completed a course in statistics and decision-making, and 238 patients with chronic health problems. All were given the decision of treating lung cancer with either surgery or by radiation therapy. In contrast to the radiation, the surgery alternative was either framed in terms of survival "a 68% chance of living for more than one year" or mortality "a 32% chance of dying by the end of a year." Even with the physicians, graduate students and patients, framing made a significant difference. Under the survival frame, ("chance of living") 75% chose surgery, but only 58% chose surgery with the mortality frame ("chance of dying").

The most recent and frequent examples of framing are a series of television ads that profess, "Life, what a wonderful choice." These are ads showing children whose parents chose to have them rather than abort them. They show bright-eyed children, smiling, nicely dressed and fulfilling their potentials. With such survival framing, anyone would agree with their statement and make the same choice.

In contrast, we would be much less likely to agree that life is such a "wonderful choice" with mortality framing if the children were pictured as ill-clothed, neglected, abused or beaten. If they exhibited the starving, disease-ridden and dying children of Rwanda for this ad, can you imagine how ineffective it would be?

If you are forewarned about framing
when making a decision,
you are less vulnerable to it.

Just like subjects in the experiments above, we are also influenced by the way decisions are framed. However, once we are warned about this framing effect, it is easier to make logical decisions based on the available information instead of the framing of the question.

* Adapted from Scott Plous' The Psychology of judgment and Decision Making, McGraw-Hill, 1993, pages 69-73.

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