Clearing Cognitive Cobwebs - Part 2

Clearing Cognitive Cobwebs: The Reframing Bias

This is my second article in a planned series dealing with faulty thinking. In my previous article, I introduced The Clustering Illusion, and today’s topic is The Reframing Bias. Why would someone whose main interest is positive thinking write about erroneous thinking? Well, positive thinkers are thinkers, aren’t they? And if their thinking is muddled, unclear, or confused, they may be manipulated or led astray by others. Learning to think straight sets us straight, preparing us for success.

So, after that brief introduction, let’s jump right to a definition of The Reframing Bias. It is the tendency to draw conclusions based on how information is presented. Now for a quick example: meat sales are higher when advertised as “85% lean beef” and lower when advertised as “beef with 15% fat.” Although “85% lean” and “15% fat” have exactly the same meaning, we can influence sales by how we present the information. For in one case we emphasize the absence of fat (lean), and in the other case we call attention to its presence (15% fat). A common term for reframing is spinning, which is one of the favorite pastimes of politicians. For example, an American politician may call his trip to Europe a fact finding mission while his opponents call it a junket.

According to experts, there are two types of Reframing Bias: external and internal. External is when others manipulate us by framing information in a way that leads us to act to their advantage, such as by voting for them. When we ourselves distort, twist, and spin facts, it is an illustration of Internal Reframing. Here’s an example: a psychology student stops a stranger and says, “Excuse me, Sir; I will pay you $10 if you answer three simple questions…” But the man he spoke to pushes him aside and shouts, “Get out of my way! I hate scam artists!”

Why did the stranger believe the innocent student was a scam artist? Because we do not see things as they are, but as we are. You see, the stranger is mistrusting; he believed the student had a hidden agenda. But why is the stranger mistrusting? Well, as a child he was taught to beware of strangers and told we live in a dangerous world. So, the stranger sees the world as a hostile place.

When we look at the big picture, we will realize that there really is just one type of Reframing Bias: external. After all, how did the stranger in my example get his beliefs? Wasn’t it from his parents (external)? Also, our mind doesn’t like to get involved in deep thought. Rather, it likes to take shortcuts, arriving at conclusions as quickly as possible. So, it welcomes our biases, which allow it to act quickly, without wasting time on analyzing all the facts.

But let’s move away from theory and get more practical. Let’s learn to recognize The Reframing Bias so we won’t be duped so often. I’ll start off by introducing short examples and move on to longer ones.

“This service costs $1,095 dollars a year.”
“Now you can enjoy this service for just 3 dollars a day.”
(Which plan are you more likely to respond to?)

“Pay $10,959 for this furniture.”
“Save $2,000 today. Sale ends at midnight.”

After a $2,000 discount the furniture costs $10,959. Which would you rather do: pay $10,959 or save $2,000? The salespeople have skillfully shifted your focus from the cost to the savings. Moreover, the sale ending at midnight creates more pressure to act because we hate losses, and if we don’t act quickly we will lose $2,000. (Doesn’t that mean spend $10,959?)

“Buy this house.” versus “Buy this villa.”
(It’s the same property, but by using a more elegant term, we increase its perceived value.)

If you were a millionaire, would you be successful? That depends on how you look at it (how you frame it). Author Richard Denny gives a good example, "Nicholas Darvas, 60 years of age, had been a partner in a dancing pair who had been incredibly successful throughout the world. He had amassed a personal fortune in excess of £1 million. He then invested astutely on the American stock exchange and made a further million pounds. He then wrote a book, How to Make a Million on the Stock Exchange, and added a few more millions to his ever-increasing wealth.

"When I met him, he was single, living between the Dorchester Hotel in London, the George V in Paris and the Waldorf Hotel in New York. Through a series of discussions we had together, I found him to be a very bitter, sad and tragically lonely man. I pointed out to him his enormous financial wealth and what in those days I called success. He pointed out to me that in comparison to Bill Gates, the Barclay brothers, the Sultan of Brunei and the Duke of Westminster, he was not a success. He was worth but a pittance compared to the billions of dollars that they were worth. This may appear to be a rather negative example, but I use it as it has been of tremendous help and guidance to me in understanding how different people perceive success."

You already know I frequently use quotations in my articles. Why is that? Well, they help to frame the points I wish to make by adding authority, persuasion, and strength to my argument. Moreover, some elegantly written quotations add impact and make the point more memorable.

Some interesting results were obtained by researchers who had an audience watch a film of an auto accident and asked them to guess how fast the cars were going. They all saw the same thing; yet, their answers were based not on what they saw, but how the question was framed. Here are the questions and average answers:

“About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?”                  31 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”                             34 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they bumped each other?”                     38 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they collided with each other?”               39 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”              41 mph

What’s more, a week later they were asked if they saw any broken glass at the accident scene. There wasn’t any broken glass at the scene. But 32% of the participants who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other said they saw broken glass. So, how we frame questions can even affect how people remember the incident.

Can you see how important it is to understand the Reframing Bias? Before continuing, let me ask you some questions. Is your job difficult or easy? Is it pleasant or laborious? Are your coworkers fun to be around or a real pain? Is your life wonderful or tedious? Be very careful how you frame your life, job, and relationships, for every statement you make to yourself or others is the same as self-programming. In other words, how you frame your statements is how you frame your subconscious. Which do you imagine would be more helpful, to put a positive ‘spin’ on your statements and beliefs or a negative one?

An understanding of reframing can also make you an effective persuader and help you develop strong relationships. Here’s an excellent example contributed by a reader, Stu, to Parent Hacks:

“When I have a problem that concerns one of my kids (meaning: When I want them to do something that they refuse to do), I see that I have a choice. I could visualize my child standing on the other side of a line, next to The Problem, with me yelling across the line, ‘Hey, you better solve The Problem.’

Instead, I get myself to stand next to my child, with The Problem alone on the other side of the line, with me putting an arm around my child, saying ‘Hey, you and me, we’re gonna defeat The Problem together.’ I find that this attitude seems to make my kids feel better about themselves. It minimizes and eliminates shame.”

The Consequences of How Relative Risk and Absolute Risk are Framed

I’ll start with an explanation of relative and absolute risks and follow that with an example of why it is important how we frame them.

Let’s say that a pharmaceutical company is trying to develop a drug to reduce the likelihood of getting diabetes. They give a newly developed pill to 100 subjects and a placebo (dummy pill) to another 100 (the control group). Four years later they find four of the volunteers who took the placebo got diabetes and only two of the subjects who took the drug got it. Based on these facts, which is correct to say?

“Latest Wonder Drug Cuts Diabetes Risk by 50%!”
“Latest Wonder Drug Causes 2% Decline in Diabetes Risk!”

You guessed it; they are both correct. The first statement describes the relative risk reduction. The two subjects who took the drug and got diabetes equal half the number (50%) of the four volunteers who took the placebo and got diabetes.

The second statement describes the absolute risk reduction. That is, 2% of the subjects (2 out of 100) who took the drug got diabetes and 4% of the volunteers (4 out of 100) who took the placebo got diabetes, which is an absolute difference of 2% (4% minus 2%).

Why is this important? Because when you are faced with an important medical decision, doctors may give you a relative risk assessment, which can be misleading and influence you to make a decision that you later regret.

For instance, according to the research of three oncologists in Australia and the US, chemotherapy contributes just over two percent to improved survival in cancer patients. Yet, oncologists often describe the benefits of chemotherapy in terms of relative risk, creating the illusion of a much higher benefit of treatment. If you knew chemotherapy would merely increase your survival chances by two percent, would you want to undergo the pain and huge expense (if you are uninsured)?

By the way, the pharmaceutical industry sometimes describes the benefits of the drug they are advertising in terms of relative risk and describes the side effects in absolute terms. In a word, their ads can be doubly misleading.

Helpful Books to Clear the Cobwebs from Your Mind

Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Rüdiger F Pohl (Editor)

Press Bias and Politics: How the Media Frame Controversial Issues by Jim A. Kuypers

© Chuck Gallozzi
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