Framing Language To Promote Positive Behaviour

I recently wrote about how we can manipulate our audience for personal gain. I was certainly being somewhat satirical, yet the main purpose of the piece was to highlight how easily we can be manipulated and how often we unintentionally wind up promoting the types of people we would rather not see become even more influential than they already are.

In that blog post, I hinted that language, and the way we phrase (or frame) it, can often act as a nudge to produce some desired outcome in others. The use of such techniques are broadly referred to as behavioural economics, yet the history of behavioural economics lies both within behavioural science generally and the art of the confidence trickster in more specific ways.

Behaviour change can occur through many different pathways, from rather simple stimulus-response associations to more sophisticated rewards and punishments. We can make a dog salivate by associating a particular sound with the anticipation of dinner, or teach a pigeon to tap a button with its beak to receive food (be aware, however, that if the pigeon flaps its wings and receives food it will begin to believe that the mere act of wing flapping will somehow magically cause food to appear, a phenomenon generally referred to as pigeon superstition).

Stanley Milgram’s notorious obedience to authority studies also highlighted the role of what we call gradual commitment; its difficult to make a person commit an awful act if we just tell them to do it, but if we build up the obedience in incremental stages, there is a greater likelihood that they will eventually do the most dreadful things. Milgram had participants administer electric shocks to another person, but these shocks gradually rose in severity, from a mild discomfort to potentially lethal (don’t worry, the shocks weren’t actually real). In the real world, it’s likely that ordinary German citizens weren’t particularly shocked by the prospect of Jews having to wear a yellow star to identify them, but this was just the start of what became one of the most horrendous chapters in human history, and gradual commitment was used to devastating effect.

Thanks to psychology (or perhaps not) we now understand a great deal about human behaviour. This has equipped us with the skills to alter behaviour in more sophisticated ways, resulting in everything from smoking cessation to getting us to buy more stuff (there is a reason why all the fruit and veg are located at the front of the supermarket*). A particularly interesting way is by being very careful with the language we use.

In a classic study conducted by Elizabeth Loftus, participants were shown video clips of car crashes. Later they were asked to estimate the speed of the vehicles when the crash occurred. However, the questions were worded slightly differently. The main question was:

How fast were the cars going when they [blank] each other?

The blank in the question was then replaced with contacted, hit, bumped, collided or crashed.

Those who received the question with the word smashed estimated the speed much higher than those who received the question with the word contacted (see table).

Words, therefore, make a big difference.

The Framing Effect

Which of the following products would you be most likely to choose?

A) A condom that is 95% effective

B) A condom that has a 5% chance of failure

How about:

A) 80% lean ground beef?

B) 20% fat ground beef?

In studies, people are more likely to pick option A in both these scenarios, even though A and B are identical in terms of the information (they’re just reversed).

The above questions are either positively framed (95% effective) or negatively framed (5% ineffective), but even though the outcome is the same (both are effective to the same degree) people tend to choose the option that avoids risk. This is why many governments now emphasise employment rates rather than unemployment rates; saying that they have 80% employment is much better than admitting to 20% unemployment.

In one of the first known studies into the framing effect, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented volunteers with two scenarios based on 600 people contracting a fatal disease and two alternative programs (A and B) proposed in order to combat it. One group of participants were given the following possible outcomes:

Program A – 200 people will be saved.

Program B – There is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

72% of participants chose program A.

A second group of participants were then presented with the following:

Program C – 400 people will die.

Program D – There is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

In this group, 78% of participants chose D.

You may have noticed that option A and C are identical, as are options B and D, all that has changed is the way in which the option has been framed. It appears that when the options are framed positively (in terms of lives saved) we make a more careful choice than when there is a greater degree of uncertainly, suggesting that people generally prefer the absolute certainty of a positively framed effect but are willing to take a risk when negatively framed.

Types of Framing

Irwin Levin, Sandra Schneider and Gary Gaeth have identified three different types of framing; risky choice framing (as in the disease example described above), attribute framing (for example, 80% lean versus 20% fat) and goal framing. Goal framing concerns both the positive consequences of performing an action and the negative consequences of not performing an action. We might, therefore, offer an incentive for engaging in a behaviour or a penalty for not engaging in it. The key would be to ascertain which frame was most persuasive in promoting the desired behaviour.

For example, Meyerowitz and Chaiken describe a study in which the outcome was to encourage breast self-examination (BSE) in women. It was discovered that when women were presented with information stressing the negative consequences of not self-examining, they were more likely to engage in BSE. They were less likely to engage in BSE when information stressed the positive consequences. Sentences were either framed positively or negatively in the following ways:

Positively framed

Research shows that women who do BSE have an increased chance of finding a tumour in the early, more treatable stages of the disease.

Negatively framed

Research shows that women who do not do BSE have a decreased chance of finding a tumour in the early, more treatable stages of the disease.

Note that in goal-framing, the behaviour (BSE, in the example, discussed) is seen as good in both frames, however, one frame (the positive frame) concerns obtaining gains while the other (negative) frame is about avoiding losses. This is different from the outcomes seen in attribute framing.

If the goal is to motivate (as is the case with goal framing), then framing statements to avoid losses should be more successful than framing them to achieve gains. This supports the view that people are driven more by loss aversion than from gains, for example, we experience more hurt at losing £10 than joy at finding £10; we are, therefore, more sensitive to losses than we are to gains.

In Educational Settings

There is little research into how framing can be used in educational settings, with the majority of studies directed towards improving health outcomes. Behavioural management strategies in schools are still primarily dominated by basic behaviourist techniques. In recent years, however, there has been an increasing interest in socio-cognitive factors that influence behaviour, retaining some of the behaviourist methodologies but combining these with socio-cognitive explanations of human behaviour (those that take into account both what people are thinking and how they are affected by wider social structures). Framing takes into account the cognitive aspects of linguistic processing and how our words shape our behaviour.

On a very basic level, teachers could certainly frame helpful statements is such a way as to promote certain positive behaviours. For example:

If you do not [behaviour] you are less likely to be successful in your studies

Rather  than,

If you do [behaviour]  you are likely to be more successful in your studies


Yes, yet most techniques, strategies and interventions require some degree of manipulation. If we wish to raise self-esteem, then we manipulate existing self-beliefs and help individuals to re-frame their self-image. Rewards and sanctions remain the backbone of society (even if they often fail) and these would certainly count as a form of manipulation. Framing might be more subtle and could even seem a little sinister, but used constructively to improve the life outcomes of all students, it can certainly prove to be a useful technique.

* Placing the fruit and veg at the front of the supermarket forces the customer to do the healthy shop first. This then makes us more likely to fill our trollies with junk food because we feel proud of ourselves for shopping healthily.

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