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(credit: H. Uechi)

Personal framing

We have more power over how we make choices and how we feel than we may realize

Imagine you are an oncologist, and you discuss a course of action with a lung cancer patient. There are two possibilities: surgery and radiotherapy. You know that 90 out of every 100 people will survive the operation, 68 will be alive one year after the operation, and 34 will be alive at the end of five years. With radiotherapy, all 100 patients survive the treatment, 77 will be alive one year later, and 22 will be alive after five years. Which option would you recommend?

Now consider the information was presented differently. Of 100 patients undergoing surgery, 10 will die during the treatment, 32 will have died within one year, and at the end of five years, 66 patients will have died. With radiotherapy, none of the patients will die during the treatment, 23 will die within one year, and after five years 78 will have died. Would you make the same choice?

Both versions were part of a questionnaire from a study by Barbara McNeil, Stephen Pauker and Amos Tversky into the framing of medical decisions. Among students at Harvard Medical School and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, one group was given the first set of descriptions, and a second group got to see the alternative set. In the first case, 18% of the of the respondents favoured radiation therapy over surgery; in the second case, that proportion was 47%.

You will probably have spotted that both the survival and the mortality formulation contained exactly the same facts. Yet the mortality data in the second set appear to “have more impact than the survival data.” Framing clearly matters.

Reframing the dilemma

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Does this look like $1000? (image: Andrew Currie)

But instead imagine you had already booked the flight in business class for $1000 more, and you’re looking forward to a relaxing return flight. At the gate, they give you some story about overbooked business class, and they offer you a downgrade to economy class, and a cash refund of $1000. How can this help settle the dilemma? If you already have (in your mind) the luxury option, and you feel you’d be loth to give it up even for $1000, you should pay for the upgrade — it’s worth the money. If, on the other hand, when (in your mind again) presented with the downgrade option, the hard cash is more appealing, you should put up with your economy class seat, food and entertainment, and keep the money to enjoy it in another way.

Another fine example of framing is illustrated in this tweet from Daniel Read, a behavioural economist at Warwick University. A local pub has responded to the new UK sugar tax by making all sugar free drinks the default, and charging ‘extra’ for sugary drinks. The default effect can be a powerful nudge, and making the tax on the sugary drink salient can act as a further deterrent against the temptation. (Nevertheless it’d be interesting to run a trial in the pub with the default reversed. Might some customers be influenced more by the apparent rebate they’d get from opting for a cheaper diet choice instead of the full-sugar default?)

Feel the frame

How we perceive experiences does indeed depend a lot on what we compare them with. Being stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident ahead feels rather different if we think, “if we’d left five minutes earlier, that could have been us”, than if we think “if we’d left ten minutes earlier, we’d have avoided this delay”.

It doesn’t even need to be as dramatic as that, as this tweet from Bob Nease, a behavioural scientist and author of The power of fifty bits, exemplifies. Relaxing in an exclusive airport lounge when waiting for your flight is appealing, not just because you get free drinks and nibbles, but also because it confirms so beautifully that you’re a bit special compared with the ordinary mortals out there. Would it feel the same if you have to remain with the common travellers because you don’t happen to have a ticket that gives you lounge access, or if you are entitled to enjoy the lounge, but it’s closed for refurbishment? Never having something is quite different from (virtually) having it but then to have it taken away, as Bob seemingly felt that day in the airport.

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Short and sweet! (image: Andy)

Even if we cannot change our circumstances, we can determine how we think about it. We can choose the counterfactual with which we compare it: yes, we could have been luckier, but we could also have been a lot more unfortunate, when we are delayed in our travels. We can also choose to separate our situation from the reason why we are where we are. Not being able to make use of the lounge is disappointing, but should it really be more so in one configuration of events than in another one? That’s up to us.

A final example of the potential of our personal thinking frame comes from this short post by Seth Godin. Presentations often overrun — irrespective of the allotted time. We try to squeeze a seven-minute talk into five minutes, and that rarely works. Instead, frame it differently: give a four-minute presentation, and take your time. You have the power.

Originally published at on April 20, 2018.

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Written by

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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