The great decision frameup
A young girl asks her Priest if she can listen to her IPod while praying. “Absolutely not!” he tells her, “God wants you focusing on Him while you pray, not be distracted by music.” The girl then tells her friends, who are all disappointed, except for Susie. She approaches the same Priest a few minutes later and asks: “Father – Is it ok if I pray while I listen to my IPod?” “Of course, my daughter,” says the Priest, “God is always happy to hear your prayers.” How we frame questions can influence their answers!
Scholars have studied framing bias in many contexts, including how we respond to risks and opportunities. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman investigated the influence of framing on decision-making. They found that when problems are framed in terms of gain/positive outcomes, decision-makers favor the choice that offers greater certainty. When the same problem is framed in terms of loss/negative outcomes, they are more likely to gamble.
In another study, researchers used MRIs to map brain activity in subjects selecting between safe and risky options. They reported that “Activity in the frontal and parietal cortices suggests that working memory and imagery mechanisms are involved differentially in choosing risky versus sure options.” Their findings aligned with Tversky’s and Kahneman’s earlier conclusions.
Other studies investigated when framing influences start affecting decision-making. The results suggest that framing biases are present from the onset. As a recent HBR article put it, “The first step in making a decision is to frame the question. It’s also one of the most dangerous steps. The way a problem is framed can profoundly influence the choices you make.”
Conclusions and implications
We can’t eliminate most biases, but we can tame their effects. For example, framing biases can be reduced by engaging and asking others for their points of view. This simple step reduces the influence of framing by introducing multiple frames of references into decision-making processes. These efforts should start as early as possible, given framing’s early influence on analysis and decision-making.
Framing biases are powerful because they are integral to our cognition. Their influences lurk in the hidden recesses of our minds. Solutions point to three indispensable skills: attentiveness, listening and informing. Attentiveness and listening help identify framing bias in the wording and structure of information we receive. We can then reconsider it by shifting and adding more frames of reference.
Informing is the other side of the coin and points to awareness of how we present, structure and format information sent to others. The objective is to control framing effects to better influence our audience. We can apply similar methods to other biases and cognitive traps to manage their influences on ourselves and our audiences. That’s the best way I know to tame their often unpredictable impacts.
 Tversky,A; Kahneman,D. The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 1981, 211, pages 453–458.
 Gonzalez, Cleotilde; Dana, Jason; Koshino, Hideya; Just, Marcel. The framing effect and risky decisions: Examining cognitive functions with fMRI, Journal of Economic Psychology 26, 2005, pages 1–20.
 Hammond, John S.; Keeney, Ralph L.; Raiffa, Howard. Thinking about the hidden traps in decision making, 2003, On Point – Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.