Tag Archives: Framing Effect

Situations Dictate Behavior: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 8

We’re into the 8th week of cognitive biases. A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to decide between the confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error and decided on the confirmation bias. I’m not sure why I decided to go with the gambler’s fallacy last week (as opposed to the fundamental attribution error), so I thought I’d “circle back” and pick up the fundamental attribution error… in case you were really pining for it.

The fundamental attribution error may sound complicated (I mean, hey, there are three words!), but it’s actually quite simple once you get the hang of it. Normally, I explain the bias and then provide examples, but I think talking about an example will help to solidify the understanding of this bias. In a study done in 1967, researchers asked participants to assess whether a person was pro-/anti-Castro based on an essay the person had written. In one group, participants were told that the essayists were able to choose whether they wanted to write for the pro-side or the anti-side. Of course, when participants believed that essayists were able to choose which side they wanted to write for, they rated those essayists as having more positive (or negative) feelings towards Castro. In the second group, participants were told that the essayists would have their position determined by a coin flip. Meaning, the essayists had no control over whether they were going to be writing a positive/negative essay of Castro. It was all left up to chance (the situation!). Despite the participants’ knowledge of this, on average, they still rated the positive essays as a sign that those essayists had a positive view of Castro. Similarly for the negative essays as a sign that those essayists had a negative view of Castro. Participants were blind to the situation constraints

So that’s the fundamental attribution error — the idea that the situation dictates the behavior of the person, rather than the person’s personality. If you’re looking for some more examples:

  • You call up your friend and find out that they’ve done nothing all day. You assume that your friend is lazy. In fact, your friend was up all night caring for their sick grandmother.
  • You’re sitting a stop light when it turns to green. You advance out into the intersection only to nearly be smashed into by someone who runs the red light. You scoff at the person for running the red light. Little did you know that person was racing to get a pregnant wife to the hospital as she’d just gone into labor. (Ironically, you’d done something similar the week earlier.)
  • Mitt Romney’s declaration that 47% of the population who don’t pay income taxes will categorically support larger government “because those ‘who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them’ can never be persuaded to ‘take personal responsibility and care for their lives.'” In actuality, the 47% of the population who don’t pay income taxes are “…not some distinct parasite class, but rather ordinary, hard-working people who either already have paid or will soon be paying quite substantial taxes.”

Ways for Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error

1a) Empathy

As with many of the other biases, empathy is one of the quickest ways to thwart its power of you. If I put myself in the shoes of another, I’m more likely to understand that there might be more going on in the situation than I can see from my perspective. For instance, if we look at the red light example from above, by empathizing with the driver who runs the red light, I have a much higher chance of understanding that there running the red light is not a demonstration of their disregard for the world around them, but maybe that there’s something urgent to be taken care of.

1b) “Why Would a Rational Person Behave This Way?”

The above sentence is essentially a way to create a sense of empathy, but in case empathy is an ambiguous term, I’ve marked this ‘way’ 1b. Asking yourself this question will make it easier to consider the other factors at contributing to a situation.

Note: While the fundamental attribution error tells us that people make the mistake of devaluing the situational factors, it’s important not to sway too far the other way and totally discount the personality factors that might be contributing to a situation. For those folks that do sway too far to the situational factors affecting behavior, there’s a bias for it: actor-observer effect.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

Perspective and the Framing Effect: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 5

Since I was going to talk about the framing effect last week (and opted for the planning fallacy instead because of circumstances), I thought I’d get into the framing effect this week. The framing effect is a very easy bias to understand, in that it’s not as complicated in its description as some of the other biases are. In short, the framing effect is how people can react differently to choices depending on whether the circumstances are presented as gains or losses.

The famous example of the framing effect comes from a paper by Kahneman (who I’ve mentioned before) and Tversky in 1981:

Problem 1: Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. [72 percent]

If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. [28 percent]

As you can see from the percentages in brackets, people opted for the sure thing. Now, let’s look at the second part of this study:

If Program C is adopted 400 people will die. [22 percent]

If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. [78 percent]

Did you notice something? Program C is identical to Program A, and yet the percentage of people who were opting for Program C dropped tremendously! Similarly, notice that Program D’s percentage went way up — even though it’s the same thing as Program B. This is the framing effect in action. Is it frightening to you that we’re so susceptible to changing our mind based simply on how a choice is framed? If it’s not, it certainly should be.

Ways for Avoiding the Framing Effect

1) Reframe the question

It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t consider “reframing” the frame with which they are looking at a situation. For instance, in the example from earlier, instead of looking at it as a choice between Program A and Program B, someone could reframe Program A so that it looks like Program C and do the same with Program B, so that it looks like Program D. As a result, one would then be getting a “fuller” picture of their choice.

2) Empathy — assume someone else’s perspective

Many choices implicate another in a situation. As a result, it might be worth it to put yourself in the shoes of that other person to see how they would view a given situation. This is similar to the reframe, but is more specific in that it might serve to help the person remove themselves a little bit from the decision. That is, when we’re faced with a choice, our personal biases can have a big impact on the decision we make. When we imagine how someone else might make this decision, we’re less likely to succumb to our personal biases.

3) Parse the question

Some questions present us with a dichotomous choice: are apples good or bad? Should we exercise in the morning or the evening? Are gap years helpful or harmful? When faced with a question like this, I would highly recommend parsing the question. That is, are we sure that apples can only be good or bad? Are we sure that exercising in the morning or the evening are our only options? Often times, answers to questions aren’t simply this or that. In fact, more times than not, there is a great deal of grey area. Unfortunately, when the question is framed in such a way, it makes it very difficult to see the possibility of the grey area.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series: