A take-away restaurant near my house offers customers free home delivery or a ten per cent discount if you pick up. It sounds much better than saying you get no discount for picking up and suffer a ten per cent fee for delivery – this is the power of ‘framing’. Now David Hardisty and colleagues have dug a little deeper into framing, to show first, that these kinds of effects can interact with people’s political persuasion, and second, that they can act by altering the order of people’s thoughts.
Hundreds of online participants chose between various flights, computers and so on. In each case they could plump for a cheaper option or a more expensive, greener option, the latter including either a ‘tax’ to help reduce carbon emissions, or an ‘offset’ to do the same – depending on how the choice was framed. Whether the expensive option was framed as a tax or offset made no difference to Democrat (left-wing) participants. By contrast, Republicans (right-wing) and Independents were much less likely to choose the more expensive option when it was labelled as a tax.
In a second study the researchers added a technique known as ‘concurrent thought listing’, which involved the participants sharing their thoughts as they made their product choices.
This process revealed that when the expensive option was labelled as a tax, the Republicans and Independents, but not Democrats, had a consistent tendency to weigh-up the advantages of the cheaper option first before they considered the benefits of the greener choice. This is significant because past research shows that when we appraise options in sequence, the first item we consider tends to be favoured. Consistent with this, the tax frame led Republican participants to not only consider the cheaper option first but also to generate more supporting evidence for it. By contrast, when the expensive, greener option was labelled as an offset, political affiliation was no longer associated with the order in which options were considered, nor the weight of evidence generated for each option.
A final study tested whether the order in which we consider options really does have a causal role in our decision making. Participants of all political persuasions were instructed to consider the benefits of the greener, more expensive option first, whether it was labelled as a tax or offset. Despite this instruction, 54 per cent of Republicans failed to comply (showing just how averse they were to the ‘tax’ label). However, among those participants who did comply, this instruction had the effect of eliminating the interaction between framing and political affiliation – that is, the Republicans were no longer repelled by the greener, expensive option even when it was labelled as a tax.
‘Policy makers would be wise to note the differential impact that policy labels may have on different groups,’ the researchers concluded. ‘What might seem like a trivial semantic difference to one person can have a large impact on someone else.’
Hardisty, D., Johnson, E., & Weber, E. (2009). A Dirty Word or a Dirty World?: Attribute Framing, Political Affiliation, and Query Theory. Psychological Science, 21 (1), 86-92 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609355572