Framing Effects and Memory
By Bryan Caplan
Economists have heard a fair amount from psychologists about “framing effects.” Redescribing your options sometimes changes your choice. Firms would rather advertise the sale of “half-full glasses,” than “half-empty glasses,” though of course they’re the same thing.
Aldert Vrij’s book on lying describes a particularly striking example:
Participants saw a film of a traffic accident and then answered questions about the event, including the question ‘About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?’ Other participants received the same information, except that the verb ‘contacted’ was replaced by either hit, bumped, collided, or smashed. Even though all of the participants saw the same film, the wording of the questions affected their answers. The speed estimates (in miles per hour) were 31, 34, 38, 39, and 41, respectively.
Pretty neat, but there’s more. Given a little time, framing effects can engender false memories:
One week later, the participants were asked whether they had seen broken glass at the accident site. Although the correct answer was ‘no,’ 32% of the participants who were given the ‘smashed’ condition said that they had. Hence the wording of the question can influence their memory of the incident.
A central assumption of much of my research is that people can choose their own beliefs. There are many possible mechanisms, but Vrij’s discussion suggests yet another. If you want to believe something, just describe the relevant event to yourself using appropriately loaded language. Your memory does the rest.
Conversely, if you want to prevent your desires from affecting your beliefs, use measured language to describe it to yourself. Otherwise, you’re burying a time capsule of deception for yourself to dig up at a later date.
P.S. The best memory-loss movie ever remains, of course, Memento.