Gain-Loss Framing Definition
Gain or loss framing refers to phrasing a statement that describes a choice or outcome in terms of its positive (gain) or negative (loss) features. A message’s framing does not alter its meaning. For example, the gain-framed message “One fourth of people will survive the attack” is semantically equivalent to the loss-framed message “Three fourths of people will perish in the attack.” Framing does not refer to whether a communicator portrays a choice or outcome as good or bad. Instead, it refers to whether an option or possibility is communicated in terms of its positive or negative consequences.
In one type of gain-loss framing, different-consequences framing, one states a statistic of the likelihood or quantity of either the positive or the negative outcome. For example, one might describe the probability that safety-belt wearers would live (gain frame) or die (loss frame) if they are involved in a highway accident. With same-consequences framing, one describes what is gained by taking, or lost by failing to take, an action. For example, a weight loss company could frame their advertisements focusing on either the benefits of slimming down to a healthy weight (gain frame) or the things one would miss out on by remaining overweight (loss frame). For both types of framing, the frame does not alter the content communicated; with no additional knowledge, one can express a gain- or loss-framed message using the opposite frame.
Gain-Loss Framing Context
The way a choice or appeal is framed can affect the behavioral decisions of the message recipients. A standard assumption in traditional economic theories is that if the exact same content is described to people in a different way (using a different frame), this will not affect their judgments or decisions. This assumption is the principle of descriptive invariance. However, a wealth of evidence demonstrates that the framing of a message or choice does matter. The contrasting effects of gain and loss frames suggest that the descriptive invariance principle does not accurately describe human judgment.
Framing Effects and Prospect Theory
In the most famous demonstration of gain-loss framing, research participants were confronted with the Asian Disease Problem. According to the problem, an Asian disease is going to cause an outbreak in the United States and is expected to kill 600 people. There are two plans—one certain, one risky—that can be taken to try and contain the disease. Described using a gain frame, the certain plan would allow 200 lives to be saved, while the risky plan would provide a one-third chance of saving all 600 lives and a two-thirds chance of saving no lives. Under the loss frame, the certain plan would lead to the certain loss of 400 lives, and the risky plan would provide a one-third chance of no lives lost and a two-thirds chance of all 600 lives lost. While each plan offers the same outcome regardless of the way it is framed, a clear majority of people select the certain plan in the gain frame, but the risky plan in the loss frame.
Most researchers use prospect theory to explain such different-consequences framing effects. According to the theory, people tend to be risk averse (want to avoid risk) in the domain of gains, but risk seeking in the domain of losses. Most people would rather take a sure $100 instead of a riskier 50-50 chance at $200, reflecting risk aversion for gains. But someone who receives $200 and then must either take a certain loss of $100 or a 50-50 chance of losing nothing or everything will most likely take the risky alternative. By framing the exact same offer in terms of losses, people prefer the riskier alternative that offers a chance of not losing anything.
Same-consequences framing effects are explained according to a different aspect of prospect theory, loss aversion. Loss aversion says that losses loom larger than gains. For example, most people would not be willing to flip a coin for an even chance of winning $100 or losing $100, because a potential loss is worse than a potential gain of the same amount. Capitalizing on loss aversion, persuasive messages aimed at changing behavior tend to be more effective when framed in terms of what one loses by not taking an action (loss frame) as opposed to what one gains by taking an action (gain frame). In an applied study, credit card companies identified customers who had not been using their credit cards recently and tried to persuade customers to switch from using cash or checks to using their credit cards. Compared with customers who were told how using credit cards offered unique benefits not shared by cash or checks (gain frame), customers who were told about all they would lose by not using their credit cards (loss frame) were subsequently more likely to resume using their cards. Consistent with the notion that losses are more attention-capturing or pack a bigger punch, those who received the loss-framed message were better able to recall the content of the persuasive appeal several months later.
Health Applications of Gain-Loss Framing
Gain-loss framing effects have guided the construction of health-promotion appeals. One crucial distinction in designing such messages is whether they seek to promote preventive measures or to encourage early detection of a medical condition. In promoting healthful preventive measures (e.g., applying sunscreen), gain framing seems to be more effective. In encouraging early detection (e.g., breast self-examination), loss framing produces more behavioral compliance. Of particular importance, the effects of gain-loss framing continue beyond the time of message exposure, predicting preventive and early detection behaviors as far as 4 months into the future. As future research discovers what, in addition to prospect theory, accounts for framing effects, practitioners will be better able to predict whether gain or loss frames would be superior for any given framing task.
- Highhouse, S., & Yuce, P. (2001). Perspective, perceptions, and risk-taking behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65, 159-167.
- Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453-458.