Prospect theory in message framing

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s Prospect theory has helped improve our quality of life in a variety of ways. I have written about it earlier. This post relates its application in message framing.

In short, the Prospect theory says we respond differently to the perceived losses or costs and gains or benefits; if we perceive a probability of a loss or a cost, we take risks; however, if we perceive a gain or a benefit we will not take any risk. Pretty obvious, Isn’t it? Why do we need a theory for that? Read my blog post about the Prospect theory to find out.

Prospect theory in message framing

Back to the topic;

Alexander Rothman and Peter Salovey’s 1997 paper that appeared in the Psychological Bulletin inspired me to write this post.

Lately, Rothman and Salovey proposed its application in promoting healthy behaviours. It is important to appreciate here that in terms of loss or gain, what matters most is whether the intended target audience perceives either the loss or gain. If not, nothing will work out.

Rothman and Salovey (1997) emphasize salient points we should remember in framing messages to promote healthy behaviours.

  • One is that gains and losses are perceived in terms of the expected outcome relative to a reference point which is determined by the target audience.
  • Second is that message framing research invariably compares the two options – either a gain or a loss – hand in hand in terms of the outcome.

The second one is not easy when we attempt in applying the theory. According to them, we need to take a stand on which approaches to use: either gain-framed or loss-framed. Even when we try to determine the approach what is more important is how the target audience perceives the outcome not the actual likelihood of the occurrence of the outcome. They cite an example to explain this: consider breast self-examination. By doing this, one has to face the risk of detecting a lump which is a very unpleasant experience: A loss! 

Consider the following Tversky and Kahneman’s (1981) scenario of a public health intervention. There is an impending epidemic that is expected to affect 600 people. You have to choose one of the two interventions available. These two interventions are framed as gain-framed and loss-framed messages. 

Gain-framed message

If you choose program A, you may save 200 people; if you choose program B, you may have a 1/3 probability of saving all people and a 2/3 probability of saving no one. As you can see this message is a gain-framed one.

Loss-framed message

Now, the same message can be framed in a loss-frame; if you adopt program A, 400 may die and if you adopt program B, you may have a 2/3 probability of dying all people and a 1/3 probability of dying no one.  

 Kahneman and Tversky found that their study participants choose program A when the programs were presented in a gain-framed message and the same group selected program B when the programs were presented in a loss-frame. 

Author: Prasantha De Silva

A specialist in Community Medicine board-certified in Sri Lanka and a research analyst in Canada

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