Cognition Corner – Framing Your Message

The human mind is riddled with quirks and biases that skew judgement and perception, regardless of where you stand on the corporate ladder. And in fact, the way your messaging is received can depend more on the way it’s framed than on the actual content.

The Framing Effect
We’ve all heard the phrase “perception is reality,” and it’s very true. However, not all perceptions are created equal. As it turns out, people are much more motivated to avoid losses than they are to obtain gains, and they perceive these things as different, even when they’re not. For example, university students paying $5500/year are less motivated to register early for a $500 discount than students paying $5000/year are to avoid a $500 fee. People care more about losing money to a fee than about gaining money from a discount, even though the end result of both circumstances is exactly the same: pay $5000 now or pay $5500 later.

  Total Paid if Registered Now Total Paid if Registered Later
Negative Framing $5000 (Baseline tuition) $5500 (Baseline tuition + fee)
Positive Framing $5000 (Baseline tuition w/ discount) $5500 (Baseline tuition)

Figure 1: If you want students to register early, it’s better to use a Negative frame.

You can use this oddity to your advantage when trying to create alignment around a message or policy. For example, when discussing performance-based bonuses, it is better to frame the maximum bonus as decreasing if targets aren’t met rather than increasing at a certain performance threshold. If perception is a significant variable, it’s also possible to frame negative things in a positive way. For instance, if you’re selling a video to a client who is frequently late with assets, it can be better to frame the variance in price as a discount rather than a penalty.

  Price if Filmed Now Price if Filmed Later
Negative Framing $10,000 (Baseline price) $12,000 (Baseline price + fee)
Positive Framing $10,000 (Baseline price w/ discount) $12,000 (Baseline price)

Figure 2: If you want clients to purchase your video, it’s better to use a Positive frame.

It is important to note that in both the University and Video examples, the loss/fee is more emotionally salient than the discount/gain. However, the consistent desire to avoid that loss (and to gravitate towards the baseline) leads to different outcomes. In the University example, the desire to avoid a loss elicits the desired behavior (registering early). In the Video example, the desire to avoid a loss elicits the undesired behavior (not proceeding with the project). You should always think carefully about the right way to frame your message to obtain the desired outcome.

A final example: video game publisher Blizzard Entertainment discovered the power of framing when they were trying to encourage World of Warcraft users to play in shorter, more frequent sessions. At first, they penalized players after they had been online for over two consecutive hours, which led to a user outcry. Blizzard responded by modifying the game’s baseline values and granting players a daily bonus that decayed after two hours. Players loved it, seeing it as a decaying reward rather than a scaling punishment. In reality, the two systems were identical.

Framing is a powerful way to increase alignment with your message, whether you’re speaking to your co-workers, employees, customers, or kids.

Check this space regularly for future installments of Cognition Corner.

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