A Frame full of Sugar Helps the Message Go Down
How framing affects message reception
By Evette Clayton
You’re at home, and you’re watching the news. The reporter is telling you that there has been an outbreak of a new strain of virus. It’s estimated that 600 people will die. Reports come from the scientific authorities on the issue. There are two possible programmes for treatment that can be adopted.
It’s estimated that programme A will save 200 people. Programme B has a 1/3 probability of saving everyone, and 2/3 probability of saving no one. The government wants to know which programme will get the support of the public.
What do you say? A study by Kahneman and Tversky showed that 72% of people will vote for programme A, which can save 200 people.
Now, rewind. New scenario. There is still an outbreak, but the treatments are different. If treatment 1 is used 400 people will die, but if treatment 2 is used there is a 1/3 chance that no body will die, and a 2/3 chance that all 600 people will die.
Which treatment do you opt for now?
The study showed that 78% voted for treatment 2.
But how can this be? We’re all clever enough here to recognise that treatment 1 and programme A are the same thing. Saving 200 out of 600 people is the same thing as leaving 400 out of 600 to die. So, why do those things sound so different to us. Why is the prospect of curing only a portion of the people is more acceptable than the one in three risk of losing all 600, but the certain death of the remaining portion is less acceptable than the two in three chance that all will die?
Chong and Druckman write extensively on the topic of framing, and how it can be used in a political context. They do, however, stress the point that their findings and the psychology behind them can be applied to any topic involving opinions, including science. The application to science communications is illustrated by the previous example.
As scientists, we like to think we can objectively view information, process it and respond to the data we’ve been presented with. The truth is, we’re all human, and a product of our psychology. Our responses to information depend on the frame that we’ve been presented with. One example that Chong and Druckman return many times in their paper is the response of voters on the issue of rallies.
When asked whether they would favor or oppose allowing a hate group to hold a political rally, 85% of respondents answered in favor if the question was prefaced with the suggestion, “Given the importance of free speech,” whereas only 45% were in favor when the question was prefaced with the phrase, “Given the risk of violence”.
This example originates in a study conducted in 2004 by Sniderman and Theriault, but Chong and Druckman run with it, continuing the analogy throughout the review, to effectively illustrate the point. How the public responds to an issue is more dependent on the connotations presented, than the content. Values trump facts.
It is suggested that the seemingly subtle differences in connotations may not be identifiable to the researchers, but they hugely influence the public response.
Framing can be either positive or negative, that is, promoting benefits or losses. Frames can also be long or short term, and may focus on the individual or the community. Which combination of frames will be most effective for a topic depends on the topic itself. Studies have shown health related issues are best framed as benefits to the individual, and in a short term frame, like the new adverstising campaign for Quitline, that emphasizes the health benefits if people stop smoking, compared to older “scare tactics”, which remind the viewer that “Every cigarette is doing you damage”.To some it may beg the question, “if my findings matter less to the public than how I tell them, why should I bother telling them?”. My own response to this would be to pull your head in. If you don’t let your findings be known, there was no point in looking. This is just something to remember when doing so.
Part of Chong and Druckman’s discussion stated that the connotations of an issue and its frame are also influenced by the availability of past knowledge on the topic. That is to say, if you already have ideas about something—and they’re not too far from your conscious thought for your memory to recall them—they’ll influence what you think about incoming information. So, the more awareness people have on a topic, the more complex the issue of framing becomes, but the more likely people are to think about new information.
We, the doers of science, like to think that these political-type communications issues don’t apply to us. We present facts, we say. People can respond to the evidence, we [try to] believe. But the “fact” of the matter is that the public responds based on connotations and past exposure to issues. Who presents the information, what is already known and the frame of the message is far more important than the actual content, and even scientists would do well to remember this.
Chong, D. & Druckman, J. (2007). Framing Theory. Annual Review of Political Science, 10, 103-126.
[Available from SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1077308]
Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica 47(2), 263-292.
[Available from JSTOR: www.hss.caltech.edu/~camerer/Ec101/ProspectTheory.pdf]
Schneider, T.R., Salovey, P., Pallonen, U., Mundorf, N., Smith, N.F., Steward, W.T. (2001). Visual and auditory message framing effects on tobacco smoking. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 31(4), 667-682.
Sniderman PM, Theriault SM. (2004). The structure of political argument and the logic of issue framing. In Studies in Public Opinion, ed. WE Saris, PM Sniderman, pp. 133–65. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press