Framing and Nudges

“Framing works because people tend to be somewhat mindless, passive decision makers,” write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge. “Their Reflective System does not do the work that would be required to check and see whether reframing the question would produce a different answer.”


Framing is an important rhetorical tool. We can frame things as gains or losses, reference numbers as percentages or as whole numbers, and compare phenomena to small classes or to larger populations. Framing can include elements of good or evil, morality or sin, responsibility toward ones family or individual greed. Depending on what we want people to do or how we want them to behave, we can adjust the way we frame a situation or decision to influence people in certain ways. Framing is not a 100% effective way to make people do what we want, but it can be a helpful way to nudge people toward certain decisions.


Sunstein and Thaler present an example of using framing to nudge people to conserve energy. They write,


“Energy conservation is now receiving a lot of attention, so consider the following information campaigns: (a) If you use energy conservation methods, you will save $350 per year; (b) If you do not use energy conservation methods, you will lose $350 per year. It turns out that information campaign (b), framed in terms of losses, is far more effective than information campaign (a). If the government wants to encourage energy conservation, option (b) is a stronger nudge.”


It is not the case that everyone who sees a message touting the money saved by conserving energy will do nothing while everyone who sees a message about the money they lose will take action. Some people will be motivated to take action by the message to save $350 per year, and some people won’t be motivated by the $350 loss aversion. However, on average, more people with the loss averse message will decide to take action. People tend to feel losses to a greater extent then they seek gains, so framing energy conservation methods as preventing a loss will motivate more people than framing energy conservation methods as leading to a gain.


This small shift in framing alters the perspective of buying energy efficient light bulbs or resealing windows from costly investments to practical strategies for avoiding further losses. Framing in this example is a simple nudge that isn’t a form of mind control, but plays into existing human biases and encourages people to make decisions that are better for them individually and for society collectively. I would argue that framing is a necessary and unavoidable choice. Messages are necessarily context dependent, and trying not to include any particular framing can make a message useless – at that point you might as well not have a message at all. Given that framing is necessary and that there are preferable outcomes, choice architects should think about framing and employ frames in a way to encourage the best possible decisions for the most people possible.

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