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Is the Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?


"You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six."

-Yogi Berra


One of the first experiments involving how different phrasing can influence our choices happened in 1981. In this experiment, a group of doctors was told there are 600 people with a deadly disease and there are two treatment options. Option A would save 200 people with 400 people dying. Option B would give a 1/3 chance of saving everyone and a 2/3 chance of everyone dying. 

Pretty simple - except that that half the doctors were told that Option A saves 200 lives and Option B offers a 1/3 chance of saving everyone and a 2/3 chance of saving no one. 

72% of these doctors chose Option A. 

The other half were told that with Option A 400 would die and with Option B offers a 1/3 chance that no one would die and a 2/3 chance that everyone would die. 

Only 78% of these doctors chose Option B.'s the same thing! This was groundbreaking. The fact that the way the options are worded could influence highly educated doctors in such a dramatic way is intense. 

examples of framing

Results Are In - Phrasing Can Influence You

This was a huge discovery. Because of this effect, called framing or the framing effect, it wasn't long before advertisers, politicians, policy makers, persuasion experts, con men, and tricksters could utilize this newfound knowledge to influence us. We can substitute urge, nudge, motivate, persuade, manipulate, or trick for influence. 

And believe it or not, they don't always want to frame things to benefit us - it's usually to benefit them. 

In Personal Finance

Sometimes framing can be done to help us out. If you have a financial planner that planner might use the terms spending plan or savings plan instead of budget. They do that because they know we don't like the word "budget." If they want us to fully understand how risky our investment are, they'll tell us how much we might lose if the market crashes in dollars, instead of telling us -35%, because they know that we don't process percentages the same way we process real dollars. 

These framing techniques are used to help us. But there are those who don't want to help us and instead want to push an agenda. 

In Politics

If you want to convince people of the dangers of global warming, but people don't respond because sometimes warmer temps isn't the biggest issue (or they live in Minnesota and welcome warmer temperatures!), you reframe the discussion and talk about climate change. 

If you want to get rid of the tax people pay on the value of their stuff when they die, you don't call it an estate tax anymore - people are okay with taxing an estate. Instead, you reframe it as a death tax! Not people are uncomfortable with the thought that they have to pay taxes because they died (this tax doesn't apply to may people, by the way). 

No matter which side of the pro-life/pro-choice debate, it doesn't make sense to try and demonize the other side by calling them pro-life or pro-choice. Nobody is against life or choice. Instead you reframe the other side as either anti-life or anti-choice. 

One of the best reframes in modern history is when death insurance was reframed to life insurance. 

To Make You Think Differently

Depending on what the speaker wants you to think, your thoughts can be influenced by how the speaker frames the idea. For example, going to the store for meat that is 75% lean meat gives us a very different feeling than if we were to buy something that is 25% fat; even though they are the same thing. 

Here are some more examples:

  • A 20% chance of rain means that there's an 80% change that it won't rain. 

  • Something that's effective 80% of the time feels different from something that failed 20% of the time

  • Learning that an investment has a 75% chance of making money next year doesn't feel the same as hearing that is has a 25% chance of losing money

  • Hearing that a product can save 90% of a farmer's crops elicits a different emotion from a product that will cause a farmer to lose 10% of his or her crops


Even our local grocery store has it out for us. They could easily tell us that something is $1. Then we might might buy one, or seven. But if they tell us that it's 10 for $10 we're more likely to buy 10. $3 each is not the same as 3 for $9. 

If you shop sales they tell you in pretty boring print on the receipt how much you paid, but they put in large, bold font how much you saved. 

Finally, having to pay a penalty or a late fee will cause us to pay earlier than if they gave us a discount for paying early. 

How To Combat 

Dr. Brad Klontz says the frame creates the result, and to most people that's true. Our minds like to take shortcuts and framing is an easy route for our brains to follow.

Taking time to consider what they framer is saying is important. If you see something that's 10 for $10, look to see if you have to buy 10 in order to get the $1 product. If not, just buy how many you need. If so, consider whether it's worth it to buy 10. If something is framed with a certain percentage, as what the other side of that percentage is - what is the opposite of a 75% chance of success. Once you know what else is on the table you can properly evaluate all your options. I know it takes longer, but that's the point. It's our brain's ability to jump to quick conclusions that advertisers and politicians are taking advantage of. 

So it doesn't matter much how much water is in the cup, if someone tells us to get the half-empty cup, it's half empty. If we're told to get the half-full cup, we get the half-full cup, and don't even think twice. 

Read Next:


Dr. Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow


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© 2018 Money Health Solutions, LLC



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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