Bryan Caplan  

Framing Effects and Memory

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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.

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The author at The Importance of... in a related article titled Framing Effects and Copyright writes:
    Economics Prof. Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on EconLog regarding framing effects (Framing Effects and Memory):Aldert Vrij's book on lying describes a particularly striking example:Participants saw a film of a traffic accident and then answered... [Tracked on May 23, 2005 4:08 PM]
The author at Desirable Roasted Coffee in a related article titled How Word Choice Frames Your (False) Memories writes:
    Two people watch the same video clip of a traffic accident. One is asked how fast the cars were going when they contacted one another. The other is asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed one another. [Tracked on May 30, 2005 12:42 AM]
COMMENTS (5 to date)
Rob Sperry writes:

The question is how do people actually think?

This page at this link has a video on the left side that describes a new hypothesis/theory on the basic computational unit of thought.

The basic idea called confabulation is that what humans (and mammals in general) are computing is not the most likely answer to a set of facts (baysian) but instead what would make the existing facts they have most likely to be true.

The video presents both a neurological/evolutionary basis for this idea as well as examples of what computational models built on this idea can do.

I think its premature to say if and how fully this principle can account for human thought, and even if this is the basic computational unit there are tremendous architectural questions still left open. But I think it casts an interesting light with witch to view human thinking and explain the weakness of so much of the traditional approach to AI.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Here's another way... choose your information sources. I know that occasionally going through my browser bookmarks and deleting various blogs and sites that I have gathered can greatly improve my mood. Even rearranging things can help. A good explanation of the rationality of echo chambers might be that people who get caught in them actively seek to minimize challenges to their worldviews. I'm sure Bryan covered that in his paper ;-). A downside to that is that if one enters an strong echo chamber trying to understand what the basis of their beliefs are and one asks probative questions that make people uncomfortable, one is often accused of being a "troll" or the like. So there are local disincentives to being inquisitive or not adopting the same irrationality. Weird, huh?

simon writes:


I have not yet read your link but will ... with that being said, I find your comment about people selecting their beliefs to be dissappointing ( a truism) ... especially coming from an economist ...

You noted a while back that economists have focused on two concepts - optimization and equilibrium ... Very true ... they have of course chased many other concepts ... The rationale for focusing on these two concepts has been the desire to explain market behaviors ... not simply individuals ...

I would suggest that an economist's perspective on belief selection and management would be linked to a market ... not simply an individual's ruminations ... Please remember that economists make assumptions about individuals to understand "markets" ... the highly stylized assumptions about individuals and organiztions enable market level characterization ... what may be absurd at the individual level may still render accurate market behaviors ...

While behavioral decision theorists have documented many biases, they have yet to explain markets. Many of the biases that they experimentally create are compelling but a question of ecological validity remains unaddressed ... Please note that the legal system addresses the very biases that they document ... I also think that much of what is addressed stands to reason when we transition from closed system thinking to open system thinking ... the biases the identify are merely biases associated with the normative economic theory that arose from closed system thinking ...

What will be dissappointing is to see economist enter psychology and fail to remember what they are trying to explain ...

nobody writes:

Prof. Caplan,

How many times have you seen "Momento"? I've seen it about 5 or 6 times now, and I get something new from it each time.

The 2-disc version of the DVD contains a version of the film with each section shown "backwards"; in other words, the film is shown in the order the events actually occurred. Really interesting to watch this after you've seen the movie a few times.

And, being the huge Rand fan you are, I trust you caught the "John G" reference? I think Christopher Nolan (the director) may have been commenting on the unreliability of memory, and the (potentially misplaced) faith many of us have in our ability to reason, which is of course inextricably tied to our memories.

This merely reinforces the Hayekian-Sowellian point about the inferiority of articulated rationality as a decision making tool. Why prices in a free market work so much better.

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