Loss Frames Are Sticky, And Other Keys to Fox News Success

Words matter, particularly when it comes to the difference between framing something as a loss or as a gain. Tversky & Kahneman demonstrated the importance of this distinction with their famous experiment (pdf) in which participants are told a disease is likely to kill 600 people. Given a choice between a treatment that saves 200 people (gain frame) and a treatment with a 1 in 3 chance of saving everybody, the majority of participants choose the first option. However, when the first option is framed as one where 400 people will die (loss frame), the majority of participants choose the riskier second option.

The power of frames led UC Davis researchers Alison Ledgerwood and Amber Boydstun to pose an interesting question:

Despite the fact that information is often repeatedly framed and then reframed before people act on it (as in the case of sequentially encountered news stories), research has yet to shed light on the potential impact of sequentially encountered frames. The inevitable dynamic of framing means it is critical to move beyond the extant literature’s predominant focus on the effect of the current frame to consider what happens when information that is originally framed as a loss is subsequently reframed as a gain or vice versa.

They went on to hypothesize that loss frames would be “stickier.” That is, when an outcome is initially framed as a loss, re-framing it as a gain will have a smaller impact than when an outcome is initially framed as a gain and then re-framed as a loss.

Ledgerwood and Boydstun’s initial experiment used Tversky & Kahneman’s disease scenarios, but after participants made their initial decision, they were given additional information with the opposite framing and then asked to choose again. The researchers found that the change in the preference for the risky option (attempting to save everybody) was much larger when the situation was initially framed as a gain rather than as a loss. Specifically, when the frame was changed from a gain (200 people saved) to a loss (400 people dying), there was a large increase in the desire to try and save everybody (and thus avoid 400 deaths). However, when the frame was changed from a loss (400 people dying) to a gain (200 people saved), there was only a small decrease in the desire to try and save everybody (and thus guarantee 200 people are saved.) A follow-up experiment using a different scenario replicated the results. Loss frames did indeed appear to be sticker.

Rather than attribute the stickiness to the human tendency to focus on losses, Ledgerwood and Boydston believed there was a cognitive explanation. They proposed that it’s easier for people to convert gains to losses than losses to gains, and a series of three experiments supported their hypothesis. Specifically, when participants were given simple math problems they completed them significantly faster when the problems involved conversions from gains to losses rather than losses to gains. For example, when asked “500 out of 600 people will live, how many will die?”, people tended to answer more quickly than when asked “500 of 600 people will die, how many will live?”

So, why might the stickiness of loss framing matter? Politics!

Our findings could help explain why certain groups seem to be particularly successful at framing the terms of political debates (e.g., Jerit, 2009; Lakoff, 2004): Once a political issue is framed in terms of losses, it may be particularly difficult for another party to reframe it in terms of gains.

If climate change legislation is initially framed in terms of losing the freedom to use as much energy as you like, it may be difficult to reframe the debate in terms of gaining the freedom to not have your air polluted by others. Something similar could occur with immigration reform and losing the ability to keep formerly illegal immigrants out vs. gaining the ability to make formerly illegal immigrants legal.

The stickiness of loss frames is also important because framing influences a variety of individual health and finance decisions. For example, research has shown that when it comes to preventative health behaviors, people are more likely to engage in certain behaviors (e.g. cancer prevention) when they’re framed as gains and certain behaviors (e.g. cancer detection) when they’re framed as losses. The stickiness of loss frames means it’s crucial that the behaviors that are most alluring when framed as gains are not initially framed as losses. Of course the broader lesson is one that applies across domains and institutions: The way we talk about things is important.
Ledgerwood, A., & Boydstun, A. (2013). Sticky Prospects: Loss Frames Are Cognitively Stickier Than Gain Frames. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0032310

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