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Framing problems

The framing effect can lead us astray by focusing our attentionby focusing our attention on particular aspects of a situation we're considering.
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Here’s a third example of a common obstacle to effective logical and critical thinking. If we’re thinking well, we might suppose that if we make a particular choice on one occasion, we’d make the same choice if confronted with the same options in the same circumstances on another occasion. But we know that people do not always do this. And one common reason is the framing effect. The framing effect can make us respond differently to identical circumstances by changing the framing of those circumstances, by focusing our attention on particular aspects of the situation. Well, I realise you must be disappointed in your diagnosis, Patrick, and I know the treatment options don’t look very good. But I can offer you a new drug.
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But I have to admit it only works in 50% of cases. Cut, cut. No, no, no. It’s no good. Let’s try it again. [REWINDING SOUNDS] Well, I realise you must be a bit disappointed in your diagnosis, Patrick. But we’ve made fantastic progress in this area. And I can offer you a new drug that has cured 50% of cases. You know, perhaps you wouldn’t be fooled by this. The description of the effectiveness of the drug is the same whether we say it fails 50% of the time or succeeds 50% of the time. But research shows that most people are fooled by that change in descriptions.
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We are much more likely to choose an option described in positive terms than one described negatively, even when the descriptions are actually the same. We are more likely to pick an option framed as a success. Our doctor-patient case was pretty straightforward. But here is a famous and more complicated example. Imagine you’re a senior health official. And your country is preparing for a disease outbreak expected to kill 600 people. There are two possible programmes. And you’ve got to choose which will be adopted. If we adopt programme A, 200 people will be saved. If we adopt programme B, there’s a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no one will be saved.
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Which option do you prefer? Hold that thought.
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Now consider the same problem, unusual disease, 600 expected deaths, two programmes to choose from. But now, if we adopt programme C, 400 people will die. If we adopt programme D, there’s a 1/3 probability no one will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.
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Which do you choose? In the original experiment by the famous psychologists, Tversky and Kahneman, 72% of those asked to choose between A and B preferred A, and 28% B. 78% of those asked to choose between C and D preferred D, and 22% C. But let’s get all four options back up and look at them more carefully. 200 people will be saved. There’s a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no one will be saved. 400 people will die. There’s a 1/3 probability no one will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. We saw that most people preferred A over B, and D over C. But look closely.
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A and C are just positive and negative ways of saying the same thing. Of 600 people, 200 will be saved and 400 will die. And B and D are also saying the same thing in negative and positive terms. Why don’t we make consistent choices between these options? The explanation is that the two choices between A and B and C and D are framed differently. One is put in negative and the other in positive terms. And we focus on the positive. The framing effect is ubiquitous. And it’s not always because we’re keen to accentuate the positive. OK, one more example, and this is my favourite. In another study, 40 people were asked about headaches. And a key question was framed differently.
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Do you get headaches frequently? And if so, how often? Do you get headaches occasionally? And if so, how often? You can probably guess what happens. If you ask people if they get headaches frequently, they can think of more occasions on which they’ve had headaches than if you ask them if they get headaches occasionally. People who got question A reported an average of 2.2 headaches a week, while people who got question B reported an average of 0.7. The words frequently and occasionally frame the questions differently, leading people to report the same experience differently. Now, here the framing effect acts as an obstacle to effective logical and critical thinking.

If we’re thinking well, we might suppose that if we were to make a particular choice on one occasion, we’d make the same choice if confronted with the same options in the same circumstances on another occasion.

But we know that people do not always do this and one common reason is the framing effect. The framing effect can make us respond differently to identical circumstances by changing the framing of those circumstances, by focusing our attention on particular aspects of the situation.

We are much more likely to choose an option described in positive terms, for instance, than one described negatively, even when the descriptions are actually the same.

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Logical and Critical Thinking

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