NOTE: This is one of a series of ten blog posts on cognitive biases that have applications in education.

People view a situation differently depending on how the information is framed for them.  Consider what happened in this experiment by economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  Participants were given the hypothetical situation that a disease was anticipated to kill 600 people and they had to choose between two alternatives to combat it.  What made the experiment interesting was how they worded the choices.

Phrasing One

  • If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.
  • 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.

Phrasing Two

  • If Program C is adopted 400 people will die.
  • If Program D is adopted there is l/3 probability that nobody will die. and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.


Notice that Program A has the exact same results as Program C, just worded differently.  Also, Program B has the exact same results as Program D, just worded differently.  Since the data being conveyed is exactly the same, you might think the results of the different phrasings would be similar.  You would be wrong.

When participants were given Phrasing One, 72% of them chose Program A.  However when participants were giving Phrasing Two, 78% of them chose Program D.  So, the same data framed differently got significantly different results (from 72:28 to 22:78).  This is scary when you think about it, because the entire time, the information didn’t change, just its presentation changed.


Another example comes from Aldert Vrij’s book Detecting Lies and Deceit.  In it he describes an example of how a seemingly superficial piece of information changes our perspective:

Participants saw a film of a traffic accident and then answered questions about the event, including the question ‘About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?’ Other participants received the same information, except that the verb ‘contacted’ was replaced by either hit, bumped, collided, or smashed. Even though all of the participants saw the same film, the wording of the questions affected their answers. The speed estimates (in miles per hour) were 31, 34, 38, 39, and 41, respectively.

Accordingly, this evidence suggests that the words we choose to frame information can effect how others perceive the information.


Implications for working with other teachers
Sometimes in education, data doesn’t appear to have the effect it should because of how it’s framed.  I remember overhearing a conversation where teachers stated that “Two years ago 29% of students were advanced or proficient and now only 22% of students are advanced or proficient.  We should go back to doing the things that worked better two years ago.”  Hearing that surprised me because I would have expected both the 22% and the 29% of students being advanced or proficient to sound like options I wouldn’t want to choose between. I would like to believe that had data’s framing been changed and delivered as “78% of student are not advanced or proficient” and “71% of students are not advanced or proficient” then the conversation may have lead to a conclusion that neither years yielded particularly good results.

In general, when the information being shared does not get the reaction you anticipated, consider how it is being framed.  Perhaps adjusting the framing will change how it is received.


Implications for working with students
I am sure that I will look back at this post with more ideas in the future, but for now, consider how framing may aid us in talking to students when helping them persevere.  Imagine a situation where students are running out of steam while close to completing a larger task such as a problem-based lesson.  Telling a student that he or she has done so much great work already focuses on the investment already made and may trigger feelings of loss aversion and sunk cost fallacy.  However telling a student that he or she has so little to go focuses on the finish line and may encourage the student to try hard for a while longer.


Where else might framing help us convey the messages we are trying to share?

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