Field of Science


Last year I sat in on a course where a student presented the well-known idea of framing. How you present two alternatives influences the choice of those that make it. For example,
A take-away restaurant near my house offers customers free home delivery or a ten per cent discount if you pick up. It sounds much better than saying you get no discount for picking up and suffer a ten per cent fee for delivery – this is the power of ‘framing’.
(Via BPS Reseach Digest.)

The student presented the following intriguing example: Two pipe-loving novices discusses smoking and praying at the same time. One asks their priest/pastor/father if it is okay to light up his pipe while he is praying, which is given the answer that that is certainly not okay. The other novice ask the p/p/f it it would be okay if he starts reciting a prayer while he is smoking his pipe, and to this inquiry the answer is that that is of course quite acceptable.

Then the student explained that the priest/pastor/father gives two different answers because the question is framed differently. Framing makes all the difference in the world.

However, I object (and did in class, but this student never really got it): those are two different situations - the difference is not in how the questions are asked, because those two situations are not the same at all. In the first, the novice would be concentrating on the prayer, but then distracting himself with something un-devine, thereby ruining the prayer. The second is presenting a situation where he interrupts smoking his pipe and starts concentrating on the prayer instead. Clearly not identical situations. Would you mind if your lover turned on some music while you were making out? Would you mind if your lover started kissing you while she was turning on the music? Very different answer, but not because of framing, but because those are different situations.

So the irony is that the pipe-prayer example is framed as an example of framing, when it is really not. If the student in question had afterwards revealed that this was the intent all along, then I would have been delighted.

Incidentally, in the first example of the discount at the take-away restaurant something similar is at play. Yes, if the patron is given no other information about prices, then this framing would make a difference. But, if the patron knew what the going rate of that kind of take-out was, then the 10% discount vs. 11.11% increase would be real.

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