Housefull Economics

It’s How You Put It

Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 52, Sir Humphrey Appleby demonstrates the Framing Effect.

In an episode of the British political satire, Yes Prime Minister, the smug Permanent Secretary for the Department of Administrative Affairs Sir Humphrey Appleby demonstrates to his junior bureaucrat, Bernard, how opinion surveys can be designed to get two completely different opposite outcomes. 

Desired Outcome 1: Get Bernard to answer in favour of mandatory military service

Sir Humphrey: So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?

Bernard Woolley: Yes

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there is lack of discipline in our Comprehensive Schools?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think they respond to a challenge?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?

Bernard Woolley: Oh, well I suppose I might.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes or no?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Desired Outcome 2: Get Bernard to answer against mandatory military service

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Are you worried about the growth of armaments?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think it’s wrong to force people to take arms against their will?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

In both these scenarios, Bernard falls prey to the Framing Effect: a cognitive bias in which people react to a particular choice in different ways depending on how it is presented. Researchers have found that people tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman examined how different phrasing affected respondents’ answer to a choice in a hypothetical life-and-death situation in 1981. Kahneman gives the following examples of framing in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Framing effects: Different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions. The statement that “the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%” is more reassuring than the equivalent statement that “mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.” Similarly, milk described as “90% fat-free” are more attractive than when they are described as “10% fat.”

Governments all across the world misuse opinion polls to justify policies after they have been legislated. For instance, it has been well documented that more people will support an economic policy if the employment rate is brought to attention than when the corresponding unemployment rates are highlighted.

For those of you trying to shed some of that belly fat, the framing effect can help you into tricking  your mind into eating less.

Eating in a smaller plate signals to your mind that you’ve consumed enough and  cajoles you into being full, even if the quantity of the actual food consumed is the same in a larger plate.

Quite aptly, Ogilvy and Mather Vice-Chairman Rory Sutherland, a proponent of Behavioural  Economics in the advertising industry, claims that adding the term ‘economics’ after ‘behavioural’ made managers and chef executives take psychological biases more seriously in their boardroom strategy discussions, as economics is perceived as a more systematic field than psychology.

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About the author

Archit Puri

Archit Puri is a public policy researcher, freelance writer, former social entrepreneur, psychology enthusiast and tired of labels. He slogs as a Senior Associate at the Centre for Civil Society to fund his daily bread. He tweets @bantofu