It’s Not What You Say, but How You Say It

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

It’s Not What You Say, but How You Say It


Consider these two statements:

“Hey, the trash can is full!”

“It would be really great if you could empty the trash, honey.”

C’est le ton qui fait la musique: it’s not what you say but how you say it. If a message is communicated in different ways, it will also be received in different ways. In psychologists’ jargon, this technique is called framing.

We react differently to identical situations, depending on how they are presented. Kahneman and Tversky conducted a survey in the 1980s in which they put forward two options for an epidemic-control strategy. The lives of six hundred people were at stake, they told participants. “Option A saves two hundred lives. Option B offers a 33 percent chance that all six hundred people will survive, and a 66 percent chance that no one will survive.” Although options A and B were comparable (with two hundred survivors expected), the majority of respondents chose A—remembering the adage: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. It became really interesting when the same options were reframed. “Option A kills four hundred people. Option B offers a 33 percent chance that no one will die, and with a 66 percent chance that all six hundred will die.” This time, only a fraction of respondents chose A and the majority picked B. The researchers observed a complete U-turn from almost all involved. Depending on the phrasing—survive or die—the respondents made completely different decisions.

Another example: Researchers presented a group of people with two kinds of meat, “99 percent fat free” and “1 percent fat,” and asked them to choose which was healthier. Can you guess which they picked? Bingo: Respondents ranked the first type of meat as healthier, even though both were identical. Next came the choice between “98 percent fat free” and “1 percent fat.” Again, most respondents chose the first option—despite its higher fat content.

“Glossing” is a popular type of framing. Under its rules, a tumbling share price becomes a “correction.” An overpaid acquisition price is branded “goodwill.” In every management course, a problem magically transforms into an “opportunity” or a “challenge.” A person who is fired is “reassessing his career.” A fallen soldier—regardless of how much bad luck or stupidity led to his death—turns into a “war hero.” Genocide translates to “ethnic cleansing.” A successful emergency landing, for example on the Hudson River, is celebrated as a “triumph of aviation.” (Shouldn’t a textbook landing on a runway count as an even bigger triumph of aviation?)

Have you ever looked more closely at the prospectus for financial products—for example, ETFs (exchange-traded funds)? Generally the brochure illustrates the product’s performance in recent years, going back just far enough for the nicest possible upward curve to emerge. This is also framing. Another example is a simple piece of bread. Depending on how it is framed, as either the “symbolic” or the “true” body of Christ, it can split a religion, as happened in the sixteenth century with the Reformation.

Framing is used to good effect in commerce, too. Consider used cars. You are led to focus on just a few factors, whether the message is delivered through a salesman, a sign touting certain features, or even your own criteria. For example, if the car has the low mileage and good tires, you home in on this and overlook the state of the engine, the brakes, or the interior. Thus, the mileage and tires become the main selling points and frame our decision to buy. Such oversight is only natural, though, since it is difficult to take in all possible pros and cons. Interestingly, had other frames been used to tout the car, we might have decided very differently.

Authors are conscious framers, too. A crime novel would be rather dull if, from page one, the murder were shown as it happened—stab by stab, as it were. Even though we eventually discover the motives and murder weapons, the novelist’s framing injects thrills and suspense into the story.

In conclusion: Realize that whatever you communicate contains some element of framing, and that every fact—even if you hear it from a trusted friend or read it in a reputable newspaper—is subject to this effect, too. Even this chapter.