Framing and Framing Theory

(Compiled for Management 360)


The Basics. Framing theory and the concept of framing bias suggests that how something is presented (the “frame”) influences the choices people make. This idea is important because it is contrary to the central concept of of rational choice theory.  According to this theory, people always strive to make the most rational choices possible. Thus, rational choosers should always make the same decision when given the same data. Tversky and Kahneman (1981), however, conducted an experiment with undergraduate students that suggested something else. In the experiment, they gave different students the same decision. For some, however, the decision was phrased in positive terms as a choice between a sure gain and an uncertain gamble. The majority chose the sure gain option, a tendency called “risk aversion.”  For others, the same choices were phrased in negative terms as a choice between a sure-loss option and the risky gamble.  Here the majority chose the risky gamble, a tendency called risk seeking. Thus the way a decision was presented or “framed” affected the choice people made.


George Lakoff, a professor at UCBerkeley makes the following points about frames and framing:


“Communication itself comes with a frame. The elements of the Communication Frame include: A message, an audience, a messenger, a medium, images, a context, and especially, higher-level moral and conceptual frames. The choice of language is, of course, vital, but it is vital because language evokes frames — moral and conceptual frames.

Frames form a system. The system has to be built up over time. It takes a long-range effort. Conservative think tanks have been at it for 40 years. Most of this system development involves moral and conceptual frames, not just communicative frames. Communicative framing involves only the lowest level of framing.

Framing is an art, though cognitive linguistics can help a lot. It needs to be done systematically.

Negative campaigns should be done in the context of positive campaigns. To avoid negating the opposition's frame and thus activating it, do the following: Start with your ideal case of the issue given. Pick frames in which your ideal case is positively valued. The contrast will attribute the negatively valued opposite quality to the opposition as a nightmare case.”


The Internet has considerable material about framing and framing effects. The following basic material regarding framing effects is quoted from various pages on the website

“… Framing effects are perceptual.  They are analogous to optical illusions in terms of whether the glass is half full or whether the glass is half-empty.  The framing effects occur when a subject makes a different choice depending on whether the same outcomes are phrased as though they were gains versus as though they were losses. Sometimes framing effects are confused with reflection effects.

“Framing effects have been found in many situations. They vary according to task situations and are mostly moderate to small. One exception to this rule was Tversky and Kahneman's 1981 Asian disease problem, which consistently yielded strong effect sizes for framing.

“PROBLEM 1 (tested on 152 people):

Imagine that the US 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 estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows.

Program A:  If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved [72%].

Program B:  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%].

Which of the two programs would you favor?

“Tversky and Kahneman (1981) found that the majority choice in this problem was risk averse: the prospect of saving 200 lives with certainty was more promising than the probability of a one-in-three chance of saving 600 lives.  This risky prospect B was of equal expected value as the first prospect A.

A second group of respondents were given the same story of the Asian disease problem, but were provided with different program options.


PROBLEM 2 (tested on 155 people):

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

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

Which of the two programs would you favor?

“The majority of respondents in the second problem chose risk taking: the certain death of 400 people is less acceptable than the two-in-three chance that 600 people will die. 


“To understand framing effects, Tversky and Kahneman developed their Prospect Theory.  According to prospect theory, people value a certain gain more than a probable gain with an equal or greater expected value; the opposite is true for losses. [my underline.] Gains and losses are evaluated from a subjective reference point.  The function relating the subjective value and the corresponding losses is steeper than that for gains.  As a result, the displeasure associated with the loss is greater than the pleasure associated with the same amount of gains.  Therefore, people respond differently, depending on whether the choices are framed in terms of gains or in terms of losses.”

“…Other theories may be able to explain framing effects more appropriately than Prospect theory put forth by Tversky and Kahneman.  In a search to better understand this phenomenon, a review surfaced long standing theories of Cognitive Psychology such as, memory, and information processing theories, as well as a new theory called Fuzzy-trace theory proposed by Reyna and Brainerd.  The web site includes a review of a combination of studies and theories in order to explore the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of their interpretation of the framing effect phenomenon. The research on framing effects will continue.  Even if these theories have not yet provided a clear understanding of framing effects they have provided much information that we can add to our knowledge base on how humans process information. Amount of information is key, as well as the type of response options provided, and the level of emotional involvement or moral judgment considered to exist.  We should remember Lewis' story of Alice in Wonderland and how similar scenarios may lead to different processing of information, and may affect how we interpret a problem as well as make a decision.  If we are not provided with enough information or if the information is ambiguous, like when Alice was talking with the Caterpillar, we are not able to make accurate decisions or provide appropriate responses to the problem at hand.”

Academic Disciplines that use Framing Theory

Over time a considerable body of material has arisen around the original concept as other researchers have extended and modified the concept. Janneke Joly’s paper on “Framing and the Maintenance of Stable Solidary Relationships” reviews a number of the extensions:


“When psychologists examine framing effects, they generally refer to the relationship between context and information as it determines meaning [my underlining]. Minsky (1975) defined a frame as a template or data structure that organizes various pieces of information.

“Research also approaches framing from a constructivist standpoint. This point of view is especially common among sociologists and other communication researchers who also see framing as involving the organization of information, but simultaneously tend to focus on the way frames thematize accounts of events and issues. Gamson and Modigliani (1987) make this point clear when they say frames are the "central organizing idea or storyline that provides meaning" (1987, p. 143) or "a central organizing idea for making sense of relevant events and suggesting what is at issue" (1989 p 57). Their general idea is that a frame is an ever-present discursive device that channels the audience as it constructs the meaning of particular communicative acts.

“Nelson, et al. (1997) provide the best, most comprehensive common definition, and the one that shows the way toward linking framing and deliberation. They see framing as "the process by which a source defines the essential problem underlying a particular social or political issue and outlines a set of considerations purportedly relevant to that issue" (1997a p 222). In other words, "framing is the process by which a communication source … defines and constructs a political issue or public controversy" (1997b p 567). Because the ideas about organization and context are subsidiary to these statements, this definition elides some of the concerns raised earlier while it quickly pinpoints the heart of framing -- the construction of political issues.

“This idea of associations is critical to understanding the framing. A model of framing can be built on the premise that to frame a message in a given way entails that it contains certain associations rather than others. Using a rather simple example, a message describing taxation as a way to achieve equitable income distribution would strengthen or create associations between taxes, equality, and income. In this way, the concepts of taxes, income and equality are framed together. This idea can be applied to message content as well as individual level effects. To say a message constructs an issue, we are really saying that it has built-in particular associations between concepts. Thus, framing analyses is a careful examination of the way concepts are associated within discourse.”


Where you will encounter Framing


As noted above, framing is an unavoidable part of human communication. We find it in the media as events are presented in certain ways; we find it in politics as politicians attempt to characterize events as one thing or another; and we find it in negotiating when one side tries to move another towards a desired outcome. As far as media goes, one media thinker makes the following distinction: “mass media deals with two distinct features – priming and framing. The media power is not so much about telling people what to think (framing), but rather to tell people what to think about (priming) (McCombs and Shaw 1972). In the long run, when a certain political issue already is confirmed as a top notch priority, the effects of framing are nevertheless of utmost importance. “ (


One example of media framing bias from the web is as follows (note that the definition of framing bias is not strictly accurate):


Framing Bias

As Susanna remarks at cut on the bias, framing bias is "presenting facts, but couched in a way that gives an inaccurate impression, or one skewed toward a certain viewpoint". She cites an example in the NYT taken apart by Bigwig at Silflay Hraka:

.... [NYT:] The American air campaign in Afghanistan, based on a high-tech, out-of-harm's-way strategy, has produced a pattern of mistakes that have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians. On-site reviews of 11 locations where airstrikes killed as many as 400 civilians suggest that American commanders have sometimes relied on mistaken information from local Afghans. Also, the Americans' preference for airstrikes instead of riskier ground operations has cut off a way of checking the accuracy of the intelligence.

Bigwig’s response:

A.) I didn't realize that the Gray Lady was in favor of a ground war in Afghanistan, but apparently she was.

B.) Only 400! It's proof positive that this was the single most accurate campaign in military history. 300,000 died in Dresden in World War II. 1600 died in Hanoi alone in the Vietnam War. But forget those, The Taliban killed between 3000 and 7000 people that we know of while they were in power. Dropping bombs on Afghanistan has caused a reduction in the civilian death rate!....


Lane Core Jr. CIW P — 07/22/02 04:41:14 PM


How to deal with Frames

Recently, a Cal Professor named George Lakoff  (cited earlier) has written the following on framing and the difficulties of counteracting an established frame:

George Lakoff's tutorial on framing: Carry out the following directive:

 Don't think of an elephant!

It is, of course, a directive that cannot be carried out — and that is the point. In order to purposefully not think of an elephant, you have to think of an elephant. There are four morals.


Moral 1. Every word evokes a frame.

A frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking. The word elephant evokes a frame with an image of an elephant and certain knowledge: an elephant is a large animal (a mammal) with large floppy ears, a trunk that functions like both a nose and a hand, large stump-like legs, and so on.

Moral 2: Words defined within a frame evoke the frame.

The word "trunk" as in the sentence Sam picked up the peanut with his trunk evokes the Elephant Frame and suggests that "Sam" is the name of an elephant.

Moral 3: Negating a frame evokes the frame.

Moral 4: Evoking a frame reinforces that frame.


Every frame is realized in the brain by neural circuitry. Every time a neural circuit is activated, it is strengthened.


Conservatives Know about Framing [so do Liberals]

On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words "tax relief" started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. Let us look in detail at the framing evoked by this term.

The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain.

The Relief frame is an instance of a more general Rescue scenario, in which they’re a Hero (The Reliever-of-pain), a Victim (the Afflicted), a Crime (the Affliction), A Villain (the Cause-of-affliction), and a Rescue (the Pain Relief). The Hero is inherently good, the Villain is evil, and the Victim after the Rescue owes gratitude to the Hero.

The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of "tax relief" are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude.

Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.

Last week, President Bush started using the slogan "Tax relief creates jobs." Looking at the Relief Frame, we see that afflictions and pain can be quantified, and there can be more or less relief. By the logic of framing (NOT the logic of economics!), if tax relief creates jobs, then more tax relief creates more jobs. That is just how the president has been arguing for increasing tax cuts from $350 billion to $550 billion. The new frame incorporates the old Tax Relief frame into a new TaxReliefCreatesJobs frame

Now suppose that a Democratic Senator goes on one of those Fox News shows in which there is a conservative and a liberal arguing. The way these shows work is that the conservative host states an issue using a conservative framing of that issue. The conservative host says: "President Bush has observed that more tax relief creates more jobs. You have voted against increased tax relief. Why?"

The Senator is caught. Any attempt to answer the question as asked simply reinforces both the Tax Relief Frame and the TaxReliefCreatesJobs Frame. The question builds in a conservative worldview and false "facts". Even to deny that "tax relief creates jobs" accepts the Tax Relief frame and reinforces the TaxReliefCreatesJobs frame.

The only response is to reframe. But you can't do it in a soundbite unless an appropriate Democratic language has been built up in advance. With more time, one can bridge to another frame. But that frame has to be comprehensible in advance.”



Excerpts complied from the Web by R. Kernochan  8/8/04