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The Framing Effect Explains Why Teenagers Make Bad Decisions

Yes, it is a scientifically-proven fact that teenagers make bad decisions. There are a lot of reasons for this, like the stage of brain development teens are in. But one big reason is something called the framing effect, or “framing bias.” Thankfully, parents can actually do something about it.

Er…what is framing, exactly? In this article, I will investigate framing psychology as it pertains to the teenage brain, make a couple corny jokes, and (hopefully) leave you with a few pieces of useful information that you can put into practice with your own teen.

What is framing?

First, let’s talk briefly about framing psychology in general and then I’ll get more specific about exactly how it applies to teenagers. What is framing? Put simply, the framing effect, or framing bias, refers to the fact that people tend to make very different decisions depending on how a given choice is framed.

Yes, I do realize that I just used the word “frame” when trying to answer the question “what is framing.”

Sorry.

I think an example will be helpful here. It comes from a classic study conducted in 1981 by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This study has been written about a lot elsewhere, including in Kahneman’s fantastic bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, so I won’t spend a ton of time on it here. But it was the first study to really demonstrate the power of the framing effect on decision making so it’s worth a quick discussion.

In this study, a group of participants all read a description of a hypothetical scenario:

Imagine that the US is preparing for an 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 consequences of the programs are as follows…

Then the participants then had to choose between two options:

Program A: 200 people will be saved.

Program B: There is 1/3 probability that all 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

When given this choice, 78% of the participants chose Program A. They would rather take a sure bet that 200 people would be saved than gamble on the possibility of losing all of the people. This seems pretty straightforward. But consider what happened next. The researchers gave another group of participants the exact same scenario and the exact same decision but they framed the decision differently:

Program C: 400 people will die.

Program D: There is 1/3 probability that all no people will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

This time the results were different. In fact, they were the exact opposite. Now 78% chose the second option. They would rather risk losing everyone than take the option that involved 400 people surely dying.

Of course, you can see what is going on here.

In both circumstances the situation is exactly the same. The options are just framed differently. For the first participants the options were framed as a gain and for the second group they were framed as a loss. And depending on the way these choices were framed people made completely different decisions.

So what is framing?

The framing effect, or “framing bias,” is the tendency for our decisions to be influenced by the manner in which a question is posed or presented. You can probably see how this type of framing psychology might influence our decisions on a daily basis in a variety of ways. But, importantly, let’s look at the huge effect that framing bias can have on teens.

The framing effect and teenagers

In their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Chip and Dan Heath point out that teenagers are especially prone to something they call a “whether-or-not decision”. This is a specific type of framing bias. Studies show that, when making a decision, only 30% of teenagers consider more than one option.

Hopefully that sounds crazy to you.

How could you possibly make a decision by only considering one option?

Teenagers often get caught up trying to decide whether or not they should do something. “Should I go to the party?” “Should I ask her out?” “Should I go out with him?”

The problem with this type of whether-or-not framing psychology is laid out in a recent paper by marketing researcher Daniel Mochon called Single-Option Aversion. As the name of the paper implies, Daniel shows that the framing effect is especially strong when we try to make a decision that only involves one option. In fact, our brains actually resist making decisions at all until we consider more options.

The problem for teens is that the decision-making part of their brain is not yet fully developed, so they have a hard time seeing that there are more possibilities.

Of course, we also don’t want to go crazy considering too many options when we make a decision either. This is the thesis of Barry Schwartz’s fascinating book The Paradox of Choice. A classic study by Sheena Iyengar illustrates this nicely. In the study, the researchers set up a table at a supermarket to sell jam to shoppers. Sometimes the table had 24-30 different jam flavors and other times it just had 6.

In both situations the choice is still ultimately the same: do you want to buy jam or not. But when it is framed as a choice between six jams participants are much more likely to buy one that when it is framed as a choice between 24 or 30 jams. Too many options causes something known as decision fatigue or analysis paralysis. Considering options requires mental energy so if there are too many options we just shut down.

Helping your teen reduce framing bias

There are many ways that framing bias can influence decision making. Decisions can be framed in terms of losses vs gains, risks vs rewards, wants vs fears, and more. But, as we have seen, one of the most important types of framing psychology to understand with teenagers is the number of options they consider in their choice.

When you notice that your teen is struggling with a decision about whether or not to do something, try to get them to consider a few more options.

You might say something like “Ok, well can you walk me through all the possible options here? What else could you do?” You can also model a strategy for overcoming the framing effect by saying “Well, I don’t like to make a decision unless I have considered at least 3-5 options, so let’s try to come up with a few more possibilities before jumping to any conclusions.”

What is the optimal number of options for a teen to consider?

One of the most famous papers in all of psychology is called The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Published in 1956 by George Miller, this paper makes a prediction that has held up remarkably well to scrutiny by modern neuroscientists: the human brain can only consider and manipulate about seven pieces of information at any one time.

A good rule of thumb is that seven is the absolute maximum number of options you should even be considering in a decision. And even that is pushing up against the limits of your ability to really deeply consider all options. So stick to 3-5 for best results.

How to discuss framing psychology

As with just about anything, there is a right and a wrong way to talk to your teen about framing psychology. First, check out my podcast episodes on The Science of Persuading Teenagers and Resolving Conflicts with Your Teen FAST. Then, if you still want more information, sign up for the email list for free access to my online course for parents of teenagers and a word-for-word script you can use with your teen.


About Andy

Andy Earle is a researcher at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he studies adolescent risk behavior and the role of parents in helping teens thrive. He publishes papers and speaks to groups of parents about the science of talking to teens. Reach him any time at [email protected]

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