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A frame in social theory consists of a schema of interpretation — that is, a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes—that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events. In simpler terms, people have, through their lifetimes, built series of mental emotional filters. They use these filters to make sense of the world. The choices they then make are influenced by their frame or emotional filters.
In psychology, framing is influenced by the background of a context choice and the way in which the question is worded. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that framing can affect the outcome (ie. the choices one makes) of choice problems, to the extent that several of the classic axioms of rational choice do not hold. This led to the development of prospect theory as an alternative to rational choice theory.

The context or framing of problems adopted by decision-makers results in part from extrinsic manipulation of the decision-options offered, as well as from forces intrinsic to decision-makers, e.g., their norms, habits, and unique temperament.

Tversky and Kahneman (1981) demonstrated systematic reversals of preference when the same problem is presented in different ways, for example in the Asian disease problem. Participants were asked to “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 the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows.”

The first group of participants were presented with a choice between programs:

  • Program A: “200 people will be saved”
  • Program B: “there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved”

72% of participants preferred program A (the remainder, 28%, opting for program B).

The second group of participants were presented with the choice between:

  • Program C: “400 people will die”
  • Program D: “there is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-third probability that 600 people will die”

In this decision frame, 78% preferred program D, with the remaining 22% opting for program C.

Programs A and C are identical, as are programs B and D. The change in the decision frame between the two groups of participants produced a preference reversal: when the programs were presented in terms of lives saved, the participants preferred the secure program, A (= C). When the programs were presented in terms of expected deaths, participants chose the gamble D (= B).