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Gain and loss framing

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Often, advertisers are not certain of how to construct their message. For example, they might need to decide whether to focus on potential gains, such as "This product enhances your health", or the problems that can be solved, such as "This product reduces health problems". Whether gains or losses are emphasized, called framing, can significantly affect the credibility and utility of messages.

Prospect theory

The concept of gain and loss framing was first examined in the context of prospect theory, an account that was disseminated by Kahneman and Tversky (1979;; see also Tversky & Kahneman, 1992, for a more advanced variant called cumulative prospect theory). Some changes or initiatives are conceptualized as attempts to facilitate gains or improvements. Other changes or initiatives are conceptualized as attempts to minimize losses or costs. In general, according to prospect theory, when the prospect of gains is emphasized, individuals reject risky behaviors, called risk averse. When the attempt to curb losses is highlighted, individuals tend to prefer risky behaviors, called risk seeking.

In a typical study, conducted by Kahneman and Tversky (1979), some individuals were instructed to imagine they had been granted $1000. Next, they were asked to choose between two alternatives. If they chose the first option, they would definitely be granted an additional $500. If they chose the second option--the risky, uncertain alternative--the likelihood they would be granted an additional $1000 was 50% and the likelihood they would be granted no additional money was also 50%. Participants in this scenario, who were contemplating possible gains, tended to prefer the safe rather than risky option.

In another condition, however, other participants were instructed to imagine they had been granted $2000. Next, they were also asked to choose between two alternatives. In this instance, if they chose the first option, they would definitely lose $500. If they chose the uncertain or risky alternative, the likelihood they would lose $1000 was 50% and the likelihood they would be lose no money was also 50%. Participants in this scenario, who were contemplating the prospect of losses, often preferred the risky alternative. The different reactions to gain and loss frames is often called the reflection effect (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).

Although a focus on gains and losses generates different preferences, some inclinations of individuals are manifested in both scenarios. For instance, as Kahneman and Tversky (1979) showed, individuals tend to prefer certain to uncertain alternatives in general--a tendency called the certainty effect.

To explain this set of results, Kahneman and Tversky (1979) maintained that individuals complete two phases when they need to decide between alternatives in which the outcomes are uncertain. The first phase is called editing. In this phase, individuals reformulate the available options to clarify the choices. Specifically, individuals convert all the possible outcomes to gains or losses relative to some reference. If granted $1000, and then informed the likelihood this amount will increase to $1500 is 50% if they choose a specific alternative, they might represent this possibility as a gain of $500 rather than an overall value of $1500.

In addition, during the editing phase, any certainty is segregated. To illustrate, if informed the probability of gaining $300 is 80% and the probability of gaining $200 is 20%, they might reconfigure these likelihoods to a 100% likelihood of receiving at least $200 and a 80% likelihood of receiving an additional $100.

Once these operations and other facets of editing are completed, participants complete the evaluation phase. For each alternative, individuals estimate the expected utility. In classical economics, the expected utility is merely the sum of each outcome, such as $100 gain or a $0 gain, multiplied the probability of each outcome, such as 80% and 20%. In this instance, the expected utility would be 100 x .8 + 0 x .2 = $80.

According to prospect theory, however, individuals apply a complex variant of this formula. First, the perceived value of every possible outcome, such as $100 gain, is not equivalent to the actual monetary value. For example, the difference between $0 and $5000 in subjective value is very large& the difference between $5000 and $10 000 in subjective value is smaller, and so forth. Furthermore, the subjective difference between a $5000 and $10 000 gain is less than is the subjective difference between a $5000 and $10 000 loss. Individuals, thus, are more sensitive to modest differences in losses than modest differences in gains.

Furthermore, the probabilities in this formula tend to be adjusted. Although the prescribed probability of a $100 gain might be 80%, the adjusted probability might be only 75%. Similarly, altough the prescribed probability of a $0 gain might be 20%, the adjusted probability might be 30%. These adjustments are included because individuals tend to overrate the likelihood of events in which the actual probability is low and underrate the likelihood of events in which the actual probability is moderate or high.

Determinants of reference points

Prospect theory contends that individuals are more sensitive to minor losses than to minor gains. Whether or not some event is perceived as a loss or gain, however, depends on the reference point. Consider the position, for example, of a job applicant who was earning $58,000 in the past job. Arguably, $58,000 could be regarded as a reference point, and thus $60,000 reflects a gain. Alternatively, $60,000 could be a reference point. That is, the individuals might expect to earn more in a subsequent job. Furthermore, perhaps reference points tend to be round numbers.

Indeed, Pope and Simonsohn (2011) showed that reference points do tend to be round numbers. People tend to be especially motivated to exceed round numbers marginally. For example, professional baseball players seem especially motivated to improve the batting if their average is marginally less than, rather than marginally more than, .300. Similarly, in America, high school students are more likely to complete their SATs again if their score was marginally below, rather than marginally above, a round number.

The moderating role of affect

Myeong-gu Seo, Goldfarb, and Barrett (2010) showed that pleasant or unpleasant feelings can moderate both the effect of loss framing on risk taking and the effect of gain framing on risk aversion. Specifically, when individuals experience intense feelings, either positive or negative, the effect of loss framing on risk taking diminishes. Furthermore, when individuals experience positive feelings, the effect of gain framing on risk aversion also subsides.

These findings can, nevertheless, be ascribed to prospect theory, as Myeong-gu Seo, Goldfarb, and Barrett (2010) demonstrate. According to prospect theory, both the subjective utility and perceived likelihood of various outcomes affect decisions. Conceivably, when outcomes are frames as losses, unpleasant feelings could amplify the perceived likelihood of negative outcomes. That is, according to the concept of mood congruence (Meyer, Gaschke, Braverman, & Evans, 1992), negative moods can elicit negative memories or appraisals, increasing the probability of pessimistic expectations. Thus, when they experience unpleasant emotions, individuals become more aware of the negative implications of risky behaviors. The willingness to engage in risks diminishes.

Furthermore, when outcomes are framed as losses, pleasant feelings could magnify the subjective utility of additional losses. That is, according to the mood maintenance effect, when individuals experience positive emotions, they are especially motivated to maintain these feelings. They perceive losses as particularly disturbing. Hence, because losses are perceived as particular aversive, if participants feel particularly happy, the usual effect of loss on risk taking dissipates.

Finally, when outcomes are framed as gains, pleasant feelings could magnify the perceived likelihood of further gains, perhaps because of mood congruence. Individuals thus are willing to embrace risks, partly because they overestimate the probability of positive outcomes.

Applications to health

Meyerowitz and Chaiken (1987) applied these basic tenets of prospect theory to the domain of health behaviors. In particular, they reflected upon whether health messages, championing self examination of breasts, should focus on the maximization of gains or the minimization of losses. According to prospect theory, when individuals direct their attention to the minimization of losses, they tend to select the uncertain, and thus riskier, alternative. In this context, breast examination is uncertain and thus riskier, at least at the outset. Hence, messages that emphasize the minimization of losses should be more likely to encourage breast examinations--a hypothesis they supported empirically (for related findings, see Banks, Salovey, Greener, Rothman, Moyer, Beauvais, et al., 1995).

A variety of other studies have demonstrated similar results in the health domain. Messages that focus on minimization of losses, called loss frame messages, have been shown to promote behaviors to detect skin cancer, at least in women (Rothman, Salovey, Antone, Keough, & Martin, 1993), and screening of prostate cancer in men (Cherubini, Rumiati, Rossi, Nigro, & Calabro, 2005).

Nevertheless, some controversies over these findings abound. First, these arguments assume that abstaining from healthy behaviors, such as breast self examination, offers more certainty. Nevertheless, participants might recognize that failure to engage in these behaviors might evolve into complications. As a consequence, the abstention from these behaviors might not represent the more certain alternative (Levin, Schneider, & Gaeth, 1998).

To investigate these issues, in a study conducted by Chang (2007), participants were granted the opportunity to select mosquito repellent cream, with no adverse side effects, or antimalarial tablets, with potential side effects, some of which can be acute. As a manipulation check confirmed, the antimalarial tablets were perceived as riskier. Consistent with prospect theory, loss frame was more likely to promote the riskier behavior (for similar findings, see Toll, Salovey, O'Malley, Mazure, Latimer, & McKee, 2008).

Second, contrary to prospect theory, some studies have shown that messages emphasizing gains rather than losses can be more effective in some health domains. Messages that focused on the gains of some healthy behavior, instead of the losses of unhealthy behavior, were more likely to encourage safe driving (Millar & Millar, 2000), smoking cessation (Schneider, Salovey, Pallonen, Mundorf, Smith, &Steward, 2001), and sunscreen use (Detweiler, Bedell, Salovey, Pronin, & Rothman, 1999).

To reconcile some of these findings, Rothman and Salovey (1997) maintained that behaviors that are intended to detect a problem can be regarded as risky, because the outcome is uncertain and a disease could be uncovered. Hence, a loss frame, which elicits a receptivity to risk, should promote these detection behaviors. In contrast, behaviors that are intended to preclude some problem, such as the application of sun screen, are not regarded as risky, because the outcome is more certain--in this instance, the prevention of skin cancer. Thus, consistent with many previous findings, a gain frame, which fosters an aversion to risk, should promote these prevention behaviors.

To assess this possibility, Rothman, Martino, Bedell, Detweiler and Salovey (1999) undertook a study in which participants were encouraged to undertake a behavior, such as use mouth rinse, that either detected a problem, such as teeth plaque, or prevented the problem. If the behavior was conceptualized as a means to detect a problem, a loss frame was more effective. Conversely, if the behavior was conceptualized as a means to prevent a problem, the gain frame was more effective.

Previous findings, however, are not always consistent with this argument. Some of these effects of frame dissipate when need for cognition is low (Rothman, Martino, Bedell, Detweiler & Salovey, 1999), although this issue has generated mixed results. Furthermore, as a meta-analysis by O'Keefe and Jensen (2007) showed, these effects seem to vanish when studies that examine dental hygiene are excluded.

Application to corporate misconduct

Prospect theory can also explain a fascinating observation--the finding that corporations that perform appreciably better than anticipated are more inclined to engage in illegal activity. This observation was demonstrated by Mishina, Dykes, Block, and Pollock (2010). Their study examined manufacturing firms that belong to the S & P 500 between 1990 and 1999. Some of these firms reported a return on investment that was appreciably greater than was the return on investment of other companies of similar size in the same industry. These firms that generated a huge return on investment were actually more likely to have committed a corporate crime, as gauged by convictions or settlements. Furthermore, these crimes were more prevalent in companies that generated share prices that were significantly greater than anticipated.

According to Mishina, Dykes, Block, and Pollock (2010), these findings can be ascribed to prospect theory. That is, after a surge in return on investment, share prices, or some other index of performance, the reference point or expectation in the future increases. That is, the company is expected to maintain these levels of performance. However, managers also recognize this reference point or standard might not be reached. They recognize the previous surge might have been fortunate and unrepresentative. The prospect of loss or decline from this reference point is thus elevated. Because of their aversion to loss, managers might be more inclined to embrace risks, including illegal activity, to prevent this loss.

Nevertheless, Mishina, Dykes, Block, and Pollock (2010) also recognize that alternative accounts could explain this pattern of observations. According to the house money effect, as delineated by Thaler and Johnson (1990), individuals are more willing to risk unexpected gains. In essence, they conceptualize these gains as house money or bonus money--money they are willing to risk. Similarly, Thaler and Johnson (1990) recognize that unexpected gains can also elicit hubris. That is, managers begin to perceive themselves as infallible. They assume, therefore, that illegal activity will not be detected.

Applications to preferences for government or private supply of services

In some nations, many public services, such as water, rail, and health, are provided by private firms. In other nations, most of these services are provided, almost solely, by government. As Mahoney, Kemp, and Webley (2005) showed, people tend to prefer the government provide these services in specific circumstances. These circumstances include services that relate to health, are needed by many people, and generate harmful byproducts. Furthermore, if the supplier is a monopoly, the public prefer that government provide this service.

Some of these preferences align with prevalent microeconomic theory. For instance, many economists also feel that government intervention is necessary when the service could generate harmful byproducts, like contaminants, and when the private supplier is a monopoly. Nevertheless, the preference towards government intervention when the service revolves around health does not necessarily align to microeconomic theory.

Mahoney, Kemp, and Webley (2005) invoked prospect theory to explain these findings. Physical health is most likely regarded as a reference point. Accordingly, individuals are very sensitive to any possible decline in physical health and less sensitive to possible improvements in physical health. The drawbacks, instead of the benefits, of market forces are thus more salient. Hence, people will often be reluctant to relinquish the responsibility of health to private companies.

To illustrate this reluctance, in one study, participants needed to rate a variety of services--national defense, water, universities, roads, prisons, hospitals, museums, doctors, buses, swimming pools, and banks for example--on a series of scales. Specifically, they needed to rate the degree to which the service is vital for health, is needed by many people, is supplied by few companies, generates pollutants, is a public good that everyone can benefit from, and is necessary for education. Finally, participants indicated the extent to which they prefer the service by supplied by government or the private sector. If a service was perceived as vital to health and, to a lesser extent education, or was not supplied by many companies, participants preferred the government supply this service.

Applications to the status quo bias

People often prefer the status quo to competing alternatives, called the status quo bias. They may, for example, prefer an existing policy on asylum seekers to other possibilities.

Moshinsky and Bar-Hillel (2010) acknowledge that such preferences to the status quo can be ascribed to many causes. For example, the status quo may actually be more effective in some instances: If the status quo was not effective, these practices would have been abandoned. Second, the status quo might seem more familiar. Familiar practices are processed more fluently, and this fluency often biases evaluations (see fluency and the hedonic marking hypothesis) . Third, and similar to this familiarity, individuals may form an attachment to existing practices. Fourth, individuals like to feel the existing system is just (see system justification theory), to instill a sense of stability.

However, as Moshinsky and Bar-Hillel (2010) showed, even when these mechanisms are nullified, the status quo bias persists. According to Moshinsky and Bar-Hillel (2010), the status quo bias may primarily represent an aversion of losses.

To illustrate, suppose that individuals need to decide whether to supplant an existing practice with a novel alternative. If individuals reject the status quo, the benefits of this existing practice as well as the drawbacks of the novel alternative are regarded as losses from the existing circumstances. Furthermore, the drawbacks of this existing practice as well as the benefits of the novel alternative are regarded as gains from the existing circumstances. However, individuals tend to focus attention more on losses. Therefore, assuming the benefits and drawbacks of each alternative are similar, people will tend to be more aware of the benefits of this existing practice as well as the drawbacks of the novel alternative. They will, therefore, prefer the existing practice, culminating in the status quo bias.

Moshinsky and Bar-Hillel (2010) conducted a study that was intended to substantiate this explanation. In this study, participants read about a series of policies and alternatives, revolving around issues like advertising alcohol on TV, statute of limitations on civil suits, ownership of aggressive dogs, legalizing prostitution, feeding alley cats, and affirmative action. For most of these issues, participants were unaware of the existing policy. In each instance, one policy was described as the status quo to half the participants, such as "Feeding alley cats is allowed". The alternative was described as the status quo, such as ""Feeding alley cats is prohibited", to the other participants.

Participants specified which policy they would support and then evaluated the extent to which they liked these proposals. In addition, they specified the benefits and drawbacks of each policy as well as the importance of these benefits and drawbacks.

In general, participants preferred the policy that was regarded as the status quo. In addition, they tended to perceive the benefits of this status quo, or the drawbacks of the alternative, as more important, consistent with the proposition that losses are more salient. This tendency explained about 40% of the status quo bias.

In a subsequent study, participants could not as readily focus on the benefits and drawbacks of each alternative. Several procedures were utilized to fulfill this aim. For example, the policies were not described in sufficient detail. In these instances, the status quo bias dissipated.

Alternative frameworks

Regulatory focus theory

Many of the findings that differentiate loss and gain frames could, potentially be ascribed to regulatory focus. Specifically, according to Rothman, Wlaschin, Bartels, Latimer and Salovey (2008), detection behaviors, such as breast self examinations, are usually guided by the motivation to avoid problems. This motivation corresponds to a prevention focus, in which individuals strive to minimize shortfalls and problems in the immediate environment rather than maximize gains and progress in the future (Higgins, 1997, 2000). When individuals adopt a prevention focus, information that relates to the minimization of losses is perceived as more valuable (Higgins, 2000) and thus should be more inclined to influence behavior.

In contrast, according to Rothman, Wlaschin, Bartels, Latimer and Salovey (2008), prevention behaviors, such as the application of skin care, are usually guided by the motivation to facilitate progress. This motivation corresponds to a promotion focus, in which individuals strive to maximize gains and progress in the future (Higgins, 1997, 2000). When individuals espouse a promotion focus, information that relates to the maximization of gains is perceived as more valuable (Higgins, 2000). Hence, many previous findings in the realm of gain and loss frames can be ascribed to regulatory focus theory.

The limitation of this argument, however, is that most behaviors can be construed as either a promotion or prevention focus (Spiegel, Grant-Pillow, & Higgins, 2004). Breast examination could be regarded as a means to promote future health rather than prevent potential complications.

Nevertheless, the interaction between regulatory focus and message framing has been explored in several studies. Cesario, Grant, and Higgins (2004), for example, primed either a promotion or prevention focus in participants. Messages that emphasized the health benefits of exemplary fruit and vegetable consumption were more compelling when a promotion focus was adopted. Conversely, messages that emphasized the health complications of deficient fruit and vegetable consumption were more compelling when a prevention focus was adopted (see also Lee & Aaker, 2004).

Furthermore, as Lee and Aaker (2004) showed, when individuals adopt a promotion focus, not only are messages that emphasize gains more compelling& the content of these messages is more likely to be remembered as well. Similarly, when individuals adopt a prevention focus, they are more likely to remember the contents of messages that emphasize losses rather than gains.

The message frame itself can also shape the regulatory focus of individuals. In a study, conducted by Shah, Higgins and Friedman (1998), participants were instructed to memorize several letter strings. The instructions emphasized either the money they could receive if they performed proficiently, representing a gain frame, of the money they would not receive if they did not perform proficiently, representing a loss frame. If participants were later informed they performed well, they experienced positive emotions. More importantly, if the message emphasized gains, they experienced cheerful emotions--emotions that correspond to a promotion focus (Higgins, 1987, 1997). If the message emphasized losses, the participants experienced calmness--an emotion that corresponds to a prevention focus (Higgins, 1987, 1997).

Reinforcement sensitivity theory

Sherman, Mann, and Updegraff (2006) showed the behavioral activation system, which might often coincide with a promotion focus, also increases receptivity to messages that emphasize gain, whereas the behavioral inhibition system, which often coincides with a prevention focus, increases receptivity to messages that emphasize loss. Specifically, participants completed a measure that gauges behavioral activation, which represents the extent to which individuals crave excitement, demonstrate remarkable persistence, and feel especially elated when they attain rewards (see reinforcement sensitivity theory), manifesting as a sensitivity to gains rather than losses. Another scale gauged behavioral inhibition, which represented the extent to which individuals worry about potential problems, such as whether or not they will commit an error, corresponding to a sensitivity to losses. Behavioral activation, but not behavioral inhibition, coincided with a preference towards a gain frame.

Other forms of framing

The goal framing model

According to the goal framing model, promulgated by Fishbach and Zhang (2008;; see also Fishbach & Dhar, 2005;; Minjung & Fishbach, 2008), when individuals focus on their previous accomplishments, they sometimes become complacent and, thus, are less inclined to persist on some goal or task. However, on other occasions, they become more persistent. Whether or not this awareness of previous accomplishments fosters or impedes persistence depends on whether people orient their attention to progress or commitment.

That is, sometimes individuals orient their attention to the concept of progress. For example, they might state "I have progressed significantly". After individuals consider their progress they have achieved, they feel their goal has been, at least partly, accomplished. Their persistence on these goals dissipates, as they consider alternative courses of action instead. On other occasions, individuals orient their attention to the concept of commitment. For example, they might state "I am very committed to this goal". In this instance, persistence increases. Their accomplishments emphasize their commitment to this goal, highlighting the objective is valuable and significant.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Eibach and Purdie-Vaughns (2010), White participants first read excerpts about the civil rights movement as well as evidence of improvements to the finances, health, and education of African Americans. Next, to orient attention towards progress, some participants were asked to consider the extent to which they feel progress on the goal to achieve equality has been achieved. To orient attention towards commitment, other participants were asked to consider the extent to which Americans are committed to such equality. Finally, participants reported their attitudes towards policies that are intended to facilitate this progress, such as funding for schools in neighborhoods with many African Americans.

After participants reflected upon achievements of the civil rights movements, their attitudes towards further policies on this matter were more favorable if their attention had been oriented to commitment rather than progress. That is, awareness of achievements increased persistence on this pursuit, provided that commitment had been primed. Presumably, these participants become aware the nation was committed to this endeavor.

The second study was similar, except the excerpts that participants read about the civil rights movement either emphasized progress or commitment. For example, to prime progress, the excerpt alluded to the progress Americans had forged. Furthermore, the title of this passage was "America's progress towards racial equality during the 20th Century". To prime commitment, the excerpt alluded to the commitment of Americans to racial equality. In addition, this title of this passage was "America's commitment to achieving racial equality".

Again, allusions to commitment enhanced attitudes towards further policies that improve equality. In contrast, allusions to progress did not enhance these attitudes. Indeed, their attitudes did not differ from a control group who did not read either of these excerpts.

The goal framing model and shared goals

The goal framing model has also been applied to understand the conditions that inspire people to become more committed to shared goals--that is, goals they pursue with other people. Specifically, according to Fishbach, Henderson, and Koo (2013), when people do not identify highly with a group, they are more inclined to contribute to shared goals after reflecting upon the achievements already accomplished. This awareness of accomplishments implies the goals of this group are worth pursuing. In contrast, when people identify highly with a group, they are more inclined to contribute to the shared goals after reflecting upon the tasks that have yet to be completed. These reflections underscore that progress on goals they feel are worthwhile is inadequate.

Fishbach, Henderson, and Koo (2013) conducted a series of studies that confirm this model. In one study, participants contributed to a focus group, the goal of which was to generate 10 ideas about a forthcoming cellular phone. The participants actually worked alone, but their ideas, purportedly, were combined with the suggestions of other people. The other individuals in the focus group were students of either their university or another university, intended to increase or decrease identification with the group. In addition, participants were told that either other members had already generated five ideas or that five ideas still need to be generated, epitomizing a focus on the accomplishments or work to be completed. Finally, participants were granted unlimited time to generate ideas.

If participants did not identify with the group, they generated more ideas after orienting their attention to the achievements of other students. If participants did identify with the group, they generated more ideas after orienting to the tasks that still need to be achieved.

Subsequent studies replicated these findings, but with different tasks. These studies also clarified the mechanisms that underpin this pattern of findings. For example, if participants did not identify with the group, orienting their attention to the progress achieved increased the likelihood they would rate the goal as important. In addition, if participants did identify with the group, orienting their attention to the tasks still to complete increased dissatisfaction with progress.

Two sided advertising effects

When promoting a product or service, advertisers tend to emphasize only the positive features of this alternative. Yet, some experts and scholars maintain that advertisers should also present a couple of negative features as well, called the two-sided advertising effect. Eisend (2013) showed that two-sided advertising can be effective provided that two conditions are fulfilled. First, consumers need to be involved or engaged in the advertisement. Second, the advertisement should include about three to five times more positive features than negative features.

To demonstrate, across two studies, university students were granted an opportunity to complete an extra course that would redress their shortcomings in other courses. They received a flyer about this course that primarily highlighted positive features, such as additional online support, small class sizes, and certified teachers. The flyer presented five or ten features. Zero, 20%, or 40% of the features were negative rather than positive, as confirmed by a pilot study. Furthermore, the students had either performed poorly in previous courses, and thus felt involved or engaged while reading this flyer, or had performed well in previous courses and thus felt less involved, again as confirmed by another study. Finally, students indicated whether or not they would like to register for a trial session.

If students felt involved in the flyer, they were most likely to register when 20% rather than 0 or 40% of the information was negative. If students did not feel involved in the flyer, they were more likely to register when the flyer comprised 10 rather than 5 features.

When people feel involved or engaged, the negative information may promote credibility and trust& however, inordinate negative information may offset the perceived benefits. In contrast, when people feel uninvolved or disengaged, they may not be as sensitive to whether the information is positive or negative. Instead, they rely on more superficial cues, such as the number of features that were mentioned.


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