Framing Costs and Losses

Losses evokes stronger negative feelings than costs. Choices are not reality-bound because System 1 is not reality-bound,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow.


We do not like losses. The idea of a loss, of having the status quo changed in a negative way without it being our deliberate choice, is hard for us to accept or justify. Costs, on the other hand, we can accept much more readily, even if the only difference between a cost and a loss is the way we chose to describe it.


Kahneman shares an example in his book where he an Amos Tversky did just that, changing the structure of a gamble so that the contestant faced the possible outcome of a $5 loss or where they paid a $5 cost with a possibility of gaining nothing. The potential outcomes of the two gambles is exactly the same, but people interpret the gambles differently based on how the cost/loss is displayed. People are more likely to take a bet when it is posed as a cost and not as a possible loss. System 1, the quick thinking part of the brain, scans the two gambles and has an immediate emotional reaction to the idea of a loss, and that influences the ultimate decision and feeling regarding the two gambles. System 1 is not rationally calculating the two options to see that they are equivalent, it is just acting on the intuition that it experiences.


“People will more readily forgo a discount than pay a surcharge. The two may be economically equivalent, but they are not emotionally equivalent.”


Kahneman continues to describe research from Richard Thaler who had studied credit-card lobbying efforts to prevent gas stations from charging different rates for cash versus credit. When you pay with a card, there is a transaction processing fee that the vendor pays to the credit card company. Gas stations charge more for credit card purchases because they have to pay a portion on the back end of the all credit transactions that take place. Credit card companies didn’t want gas stations to charge a credit card surcharge, effectively making it more expensive to buy gas with a card than with cash. Ultimately they couldn’t stop gas stations from charging different rates, but they did succeed in changing the framing around the different prices. Cash prices are listed as discounts, shifting the base rate to the credit price. As Kahneman writes, people will skip the extra effort that would garner the cash discount and pay with their cards. However, if people were directly told that there was a credit surcharge, that they had to pay more for the convenience of using their card, it is possible that more individuals would make the extra effort to pay with cash. How we frame a cost or a loss matters, especially because it can shift the baseline for consideration, making us see things as either costs or losses depending on the context, and potentially altering our behavior.

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