What is the ‘framing effect’ and how it affects people’s behavior

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The information or the structure we use to present a message often affects the content interpretation by the interlocutor. Equivalent, but not identical, descriptions of the same decision-making situation can lead to different choices by the people facing different options. There are concepts applied in neuromarketing, which allow us to investigate how the responses to a stimulus can be drastically different depending on how a problem is communicated or the context within which it is presented.

“Frame” is a term used to express the context within which people express an idea, a question, a decision. Frames capture our attention and direct our interpretations thanks to the emphasis on certain aspects (or, on the contrary, by disguising others).

For example:

“Don’t think of an elephant!”


George Lakoff, a famous cognitive linguist, submitted this sentence to his students during one of his lectures. In this case, it is not possible not to think of an elephant precisely because this is the frame that has been activated and directs the meaning of the sentence itself.

Let’s consider another example. We are about to enter an ice cream shop with the intention of enjoying a low-fat frozen yogurt and we are faced with two different ways of presenting the same information.



As I said before, our choices are strongly influenced by how the various options are presented. Inevitably, due to this cognitive bias called framing effect, we will be more likely to consider “80% fat free” than “contains 20% fat” despite the information being quantitatively equivalent. The frame of reference changes radically (“fat free” – positive frame VS “contains fat” – negative frame).

From a neurobiological point of view the “framing effect” is a phenomenon associated with the activity of the amygdala still unknown in its operating details. Instead the purely psychological dimension of this effect is appreciable in direct experience and has been extensively studied and used in marketing decisions.


Buy before it’s gone! An example of framing effect constantly under our eyes

Buy before it’s gone“, is a particular and still widely used kind of framing effect, and it can be appreciated in Amazon Prime Day (we talked about it here) and also in the booking sites of hotels, flights, etc.

The underlying idea refers to loss aversion, the tendency to consider more relevant a loss rather than a gain of equal magnitude. In this sense, a purchase experience is structured based on the specific frame of a loss that must be avoided at all costs.

As you can see, psychology and user experience join forces on several fronts. A particularly fruitful interaction between the two areas is precisely this, the identification of cognitive-behavioral bias at the base of some human choices, especially those that appear in sharp contrast with the “standard” dimensions of logic and rationality.


Psychology and user experience: how can we identify cognitive-behavioral biases?

At the basis of the process of identification of cognitive-behavioral bias we find the usability test, which allows us to understand how people who relate to the brand or product perceive it and interact with services.

Understanding how people perceive a certain element of the site, a newsletter or any other communication product, brings out the potential cognitive biases behind the design, which can be discarded or used in a positive and ethical way in the design.

The usability test can use different techniques to detect the attention and perception of people while living certain experiences, such as:

  • Eye tracking, the tool we use to better understand how people move, both in digital spaces and in physical spaces. More precisely, thanks to it we can understand where they focus more, which elements attract their attention the most and which are ignored. In the case of the framing effect “under time pressure”, the indications that indicate the purchase limits attract more attention than other product information and are one of the first things that are noticed;
  • Think aloud, a practice that we often use combined with eye tracking. People who take the usability test talk to us about what they see, think, feel while interacting with a digital product or service. Normally the think aloud is put into practice thanks to the intervention of a test moderator, who assists the person carrying it out and encourages him/her to comment asking her questions. The moderator’s task is also to observe who performs the test: posture, proxemics, facial expression, provide non-verbal and para-verbal information that completes the analysis.

Integrating psychology and user experience is the basis of our mixed methods approach that integrates experiential tests with quantitative analysis models, in order to obtain a complete and objective view of people’s experience.

Thanks to the possibility of involving people in the studios, we are able to design and optimize the experience of people with the aim of improving their value by listening to their experiences and taking care of their carried values.

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13 November 2019 Christian Caldato

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TAG: usability test The Sixth W approach