Tversky & Kahneman (1986) aimed to test the influence of positive and negative frames on decision making. The researchers used a self-selected (volunteer) sample of 307 US undergraduate students.
Participants were asked to make a decision between one of two options in a hypothetical scenario where they were choosing how to respond to the outbreak of a virulent disease. For some of the participants the information was framed positively while for others it was framed negatively.
The scenario read as follows:
Imagine that the U.S. 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 estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows.
In condition 1, the participants were given the "positive frame." Their choices were the following:
- If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.
- 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.
In this condition, 72% of the participants chose Program A, whereas only 28% chose program B.
In condition 2, the participants were given the "negative frame." Their choices were the following:
- If Program C is adopted 400 people will die.
- If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.
In this condition, 22% of the participants chose Program C and 78% chose Program D.
It is important to note that all four options, (A, B, C and D) are effectively the same; 200 people will survive and 400 people will not.
The results clearly demonstrate the influence of the frame. Where information was phrased positively, (the number of people who would be saved) people took the certain outcome, (option A) and avoided the possibility of a loss in the less certain option (option B). By contrast, when information was phrased in terms of people dying (a negative frame) people avoided the certain loss (option C) and took a chance on the less certain option D.