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February 15, 2017

It Depends How You Ask the Question – The Asian Disease Problem

Which explains a lot of where we are today

Quotes are from Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project describing the work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

“Problem 1. Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequence of the programs is as follows: If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/ 3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/ 3 probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor?”

An “overwhelming majority” of people chose Program A which saves 200 lives for sure.

Now ask this question:

 “Problem 2. If Program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If Program D is adopted, there is a 1/ 3 probability that nobody will die and a 2/ 3 probability that 600 people will die.”

An “overwhelming majority” of the group given problem 2 chose Program D. Note that Program A and C are identical in their outcomes as are B and D. The questions are just framed differently. When A was framed as a gain, people chose it; when it was phrased as a loss (as it is in C), people rejected it.

This is scarcely new news. Every salesperson worth his or her salt knows that fear sells. Sales 101 (which I only attended by osmosis) teaches “first create anxiety in the prospect.” IBM famously used FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the early mainframe days to convince IT managers not to buy cheaper computers from competitors like Burroughs and Sperry Rand (remember them?). “You’ll never get blamed for picking IBM”… but, if the cheap computer you chose breaks, ….

As we’ve seen, a political campaign based on xenophobia and fear of job loss (they overlap but they’re not the same thing) can be successful against long odds. And as we see now, fear of President Trump is a potent fund-raising theme and impetus to demonstrate even where it is not clear exactly what the demonstration is against.

Framing may explain why so many polls about BREXIT and Trump were wrong. Probably unconsciously, pollsters phrased their questions in a way likely to elicit the response they expected. The lesson of the quotes above is that people respond to the framing of a question, not to its actual content. I will never again pay any attention to a poll unless I see the exact question that was asked.

More broadly framing may explain why some people persist in socially dangerous anti-vaccination behavior: they are avoiding what is explained to them as a risk, which we tend to do at almost any cost. Framing may also explain why discussions on what actions should or shouldn’t be taken to avoid climate change are shouting matches rather than exercises in reason: the two sides have the question framed differently in their minds.

More on The Undoing Project is here.

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