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The Framing Effect makes people accept deaths and pay fines

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Perhaps you are an unscrupulous official. You want people to accept the unacceptable. You want people to pay more money than they have to. There's an easy way to do that, and all it takes is no discernible moral values, and an ability to frame things just the right way.

Top photo by Ben K. Adams via flickr

Not all evil has to be extreme. Just a little bit of money from a lot of different people can set you up for life. The trick is to convince a lot of different people to give you a little bit of money. The obvious choice is to set up a kickstarter for a fake illness, but there's always a chance that that kind of thing will backfire. A better way is to leverage what power you have to extort a some money from the populace. No, not by levying fines. By providing discounts.


The Framing Effect

If offering discounted services seems, to you, an inefficient way of making money, then you've fallen victim to the Framing Effect. People will react wildly differently to identical sets of facts if you present those facts different ways. That's why the incumbent politician will always talk about employment rates, while the challenger will talk about unemployment rates. Although they mean the same thing, they don't have the same effect.


Let's say, like a certain university, you are in charge of an institution that has a specific application policy. Turn in your application by an early date, and you pay one application fee. Turn it in by a later date, and you pay a slightly higher one. That seems straightforward. But let's also say you get a little percentage of the cash from those applications. You don't mind taking it easy those first few weeks if you can rake in the cash later, but how to make people pay the higher rate? The answer is simple. Announce, in material about the application process, that a prospective student will get a discount if they turn their application in early. One university did exactly that and discovered that sixty-three percent of their applicants received the discount. It seems like a high percentage, until you realize that when they had presented the same difference in rates as a base fee and a penalty for late application, ninety-seven percent of people turned in their applications in time to get the lesser rate.

This idea opens us up to all kinds of possibilities. Instead of parking tickets, perhaps we should offer people a chance to purchase "deluxe extended day passes," that will allow them to park for the longer than the time posted on signs. The amount of people contesting a parking ticket would go way down, and you'd be able to collect even higher fines on people breaking the law and "stealing" a space without paying for an extended day pass. Oh, the money-making opportunities!

It Gets Darker

The most famous use of the Framing Effect was creepier than economics. People were asked to evaluate the best way to treat a disease that affected 600 people. One treatment had a predictable outcome, 200 people would live and 400 people would die. The other treatment had a one-third shot at saving everyone. It also had a two-thirds shot of saving no one. How should people choose between them?


"Should" is a tricky word. We can't know, morally, what people should choose, but we know what people did choose. When they were told that the first treatment would save 200 people, they were mostly for it. When they were told that it would definitely leave 400 people to die, they were not interested.

By framing things as a matter of "lives saved" you can erase the reality of "lives lost." And by stressing the amount of "lives lost" you can ignore the idea of lives saved. Outcome isn't a function of probability - it's a function of semantics.


[Via Thinking, Fast and Slow, Journal of Economic Psychology]