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What is the Framing Effect (and 5 Ways to Avoid it!)

by Ashley

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Imagine you’re buying a brand spanking new car. One salesman shows you all the fancy features and tells you this car will last you a lifetime. The other salesman tells you how long it will take to pay off the car and gives you a list of parts that have to be fixed frequently.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which salesman sells you the car. This is due to a concept called the framing effect that influences our decisions on a daily basis. Without learning to recognize this bias in your life, you may find yourself manipulated into making decisions you wouldn’t otherwise.

This article will help you put on your scientist goggles to overcome the tricky framing effect. With a few tips, you can learn to ditch the façade and make the choice that’s best for you.

What is the framing effect?

The framing effect is a cognitive bias in which your decisions are affected by how your choices are presented to you.

If the positive aspects of a choice are highlighted, you will be more likely to choose that option. Whereas if the negative parts of that same choice are emphasized, you’ll be less likely to choose that option.

In other words, we are highly susceptible to our decisions being manipulated based on how information is presented to us. It’s logical that we’re drawn to options that are painted out to be more attractive or help us avoid risk.

This is exactly why it’s important to understand this bias to make sure that your decisions aren’t being made for you. Because sometimes the option that is painted out to be more attractive is deceiving you.

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What are examples of the framing effect?

We all fall prey to the framing effect. This is in part because we’re presented with hundreds of choices each day. And our brains want to make decisions efficiently without having to use up too much brain power.

A classic example of the framing effect can be seen in food labeling. Many foods will say things like “fat-free” to make you think you are making a healthier choice. However, if the same food label advertised how much sugar they used to make the flavor better to eliminate the fat you would find it less healthy.

Good marketers are masters of using the framing effect to their advantage. But good consumers can see through this with a little practice.

The framing effect isn’t limited just to marketing though. I see the framing effect in healthcare all the time. 

A surgeon will tell a patient that a particular form of surgery is going to eliminate their pain and improve their function. What the surgeon may not tell the patient is that certain forms of surgery are extremely painful and the outcomes may be no better than conservative care or time alone.

Now I’m not saying surgery is a bad choice. But when presented with all the options and potential outcomes, the patient may make a different choice than if they are only told how wonderful surgery will be.

Studies on the framing effect

A particularly interesting study on the framing effect was done on a population of patients with cancer. The researchers offered the patients an option that was more toxic, but more effective. They also offered a less toxic option that was less effective for treating cancer.

For each choice, they either highlighted the survival odds or the odds of dying. They found that when the toxic but effective option was presented with only a 50% likelihood of dying individuals were less likely to choose it. However, when the same option was presented with a 50% likelihood of surviving patients were more prone to choose it.

Another study in 2020 looked at the framing effect in relation to purchasing organic food. They found that individuals were more likely to purchase organic food when they highlighted the negative impact of nonorganic food on the individual and the environment.

These studies demonstrate that we are highly motivated to both choose the more attractive choice and to avoid any risk to our well-being.

How does the framing effect impact your mental health

You may be thinking that the framing effect is unrelated to mental health, but trust me when I say this is not the case. I personally experienced the framing effect in relation to my own mental health a few years ago.

I was struggling with relatively severe depression. Whenever I was presented with a choice, I tended to be more influenced by the option that presented the potential downfalls instead of seeing the potential gains. This only led to my depression worsening.

I remember specifically when my good friend told me I needed a therapist. At the time, I highlighted the cost and the embarrassment as risks to making that choice. If I had been more open and thought about the potential upsides, maybe I would have made the choice quicker and found relief sooner.

Research has also shown that experiencing anxiety can make you more risk averse when it comes to making choices. Your anxiety may lead you to consistently choose options that are presented as safe choices, which may or may not be the best choice.

And in some ways, choosing the safer option only reinforces your anxiety as it positively rewards you for staying in your comfort zone.

All this to say, it’s in your best interest to learn to critically assess your choices. Doing so will help your mental well-being flourish and promote your personal growth.

5 ways to overcome the framing effect

If you’re ready to read between the lines of all your choices, then it’s time to dive into these tips. With a little work, you can outwit the framing effect starting today.  

1.  Change your perspective

If a choice sounds too good to be true or if someone is painting it out to be a disaster, it’s time to look at things from a different angle.

Changing your perspective on the choice may help you better understand if it’s a good option for you.

This was critical when it came to picking out a grad school. I was fortunate to have multiple options, so I essentially wanted each school to give me a worthwhile pitch.

I remember one school in particular that over-emphasized how wonderful their physical therapy program was. At first, it seemed like a no-brainer that I should go with that school.

After taking a step away from the fancy school rep who gave me all the snazzy free merchandise, I started to look at it from a different perspective. I considered where the school was located, and the cost of living, and looked at the percentage of students who completed the program. 

It became clear quickly that despite the great program design, the school was not going to be the right fit for me.

It’s essential to try to look at your options from multiple angles to ensure you see the truth of the situation.

2. Investigate your options

This may sound like common sense, but you’d be surprised how appealing it can be to make a hasty decision.

When you encounter the framing effect, the person or entity offering you the decision doesn’t necessarily want you to investigate. They are trying to present you with an offer that results in you making the decision they want.

This is why I would first recommend that you take a moment or maybe even two moments before making a choice. Look at all your choices critically.

Remember this holds true for people who are painting things out to be overly negative as well. The person who wants you to avoid their competitor will be sure to tell you how awful their competitor is.

Even when it seems like you know what you want, practice thoroughly investigating your choices. Because from my experience, a hasty decision is rarely a good one.

3. Ask questions

Any time you are given a choice and you aren’t sure about it, you need to ask questions. This is not the time to be shy.

I mentioned before that salesmen and market experts are tuned in to how to use the framing effect to their advantage. This is why you need to ask tough questions to avoid letting them take advantage of you.

This almost happened to me a few years ago when I was purchasing a used car. The salesman showed me two cars. One was significantly more expensive than the other.

The salesman made sure to pitch the more expensive car as more reliable, fuel-efficient, and a long-lasting brand. He did point out some of the positive qualities of the cheaper car but was sure to mention every flaw he could find with it.

Keep in mind he presented all this information with much more class and pizazz than I just did. So I have to give him credit in the sense that he did an excellent job presenting the choices.

He almost had me buy the expensive car until I stopped to ask him to show me the history of the vehicle. Come to find out the more expensive car had been in an accident.

Needless to say, all it took was a few questions to realize that he was trying to frame me into making a poor choice.

4. Get others’ opinions

If you are making a particularly important life decision, I find it best to seek out the opinions of trusted loved ones. Now notice I didn’t say the opinion of that funky uncle that you don’t like.

Asking for others’ opinions assures that you’re not so far in and sold on a choice that you’re missing something important. These multiple opinions act as a sort of safeguard against someone trying to pull a fast one on you.

Now I wouldn’t go out and get a million opinions because then you might get caught in analysis paralysis. But a few fresh insights can help you make sure you’re seeing a decision clearly.

I have to say I really owe my parents for helping me avoid being a consistent victim of the framing effect. Without their sound advice, I’d probably have 80 credit cards and a long track record of bad decisions.

5. Don’t let your emotions lead the way

I’m not saying emotions are a bad thing. But when it comes to making decisions, you don’t want your emotions behind the driver’s wheel.

If you’re like me, after a bad day at work the 80% fat-free rocky road ice cream starts to sound like it’s good for your health. Or if I’m overly excited I might be more inclined to believe the salesgirl who tells me that her product is going to fix all my problems.

Emotions can act as clouds to your logical brain when you’re presented with a decision. And I’m human. I know all decisions can’t be made from a calm state.

But whenever possible, try to not let your emotions lead the way because they will only serve to magnify the framing effect.

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Wrapping up

Life is full of decisions and the framing effect will try to make some of them for you. Using the tips from this article, you can look outside of the frame to make the choice best for you. Because at the end of the day, the decisions you make are what create your reality as you know it.

Have you ever been affected by the framing effect? When was the last time you managed to avoid it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Ashley Kaiser AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Physical therapist, writer, and outdoor enthusiast from Arizona. Self-proclaimed dark chocolate addict and full-time adrenaline junkie. Obsessed with my dog and depending on the day my husband, too.

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