Framing Effects

By Ben Ambridge


2.15    Play video

Let’s a try a little experiment based on one conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky; who we talked about in the video looking at System 1 and System 2.

Imagine a killer disease is sweeping the country! Government scientists have figured that, with no action, the disease will kill 600 people. They have come up with two alternative treatment programmes, only one of which can be adopted. Which do you pick?

If you choose Treatment A, 200 people will be saved.

If you choose Treatment B, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that nobody will be saved.

Which would you pick? Treatment A, right? Almost everyone makes this choice, on the basis that it’s better to save a guaranteed 200 than to gamble on the 600. But suppose that, instead I offered you this choice:

If you choose Treatment A, 400 people will die.

If you choose Treatment B, there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

Which would you pick in this scenario? Treatment B, right? We can’t condemn 400 people that we have a chance of saving?

But guess what? The two problems above were, mathematically speaking, exactly the same. In both, you have to choose between Treatment A, in which 200 are saved and 400 die, and Treatment B, in which you might save all 600 (none dying), but you might save nobody (everybody dying).

Where they differed was in the framing. In the first version, Option A appealed to your emotional side by saying “200 people will be saved” (neglecting to mention the 400 who will not). In the second version, it was Option B that appealed to your emotional side, by holding out the possibility that “nobody will die”.

Your emotional response to Option A “400 people will die” (neglecting to mention the 200 who will not) was one of horror. Logically, the problem is exactly the same in both versions; it just feels different on an emotional level.

And this isn’t just you and me. A follow-up study showed that even doctors fell for these types of framing effects when deciding on treatments for hypothetical patients.

What this means for your site is that customers are affected not just by the offering, but in the way that it’s framed. For example, here are four different ways of framing exactly the same deal:

  1. The product costs £90; Shipping costs £10
  2. The product costs £100; Shipping is free.
  3. The product costs £99; Special offer: Shipping is just £1
  4. The product costs £110; Shipping costs £10. But all orders over £100 qualify for £20 off the entire order.

Of course, which of these works best for your site depends on exactly what you’re selling, and you’ll have to do your own tests. But the point is that customers don’t simply look at the overall cost of the package – which is exactly the same in all of these alternatives – framing matters.

Ben Ambridge
Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I lead consumer psychology at Endless Gain. I’m interested in how research findings from academic psychology can be applied in our everyday lives as consumers. And, importantly how psychology plays an influential role in ecommerce. I write a weekly psychology column for The Observer, and my book Psy-Q: You Know Your IQ - Now Test Your Psychological Intelligence has been translated into 15 languages. Check out my TED talk, "Ten Myths about Psychology, Debunked".

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