Understanding Framing in Negotiation


Frank is considering the purchase of a home theater system, but hasn’t decided whether he can afford it. He enters the store and the salesman gives the following pitch about the top-of-the-line product:

“Frank, your family will love watching movies on this system. Our installment plan will only require you to spend the monthly equivalent of one case of beer. Surely spending quality time with your family is more important than one case of beer?”

Though Frank had intended to spend less, he exclaims “Of course it is!” and signs the purchase agreement. What just happened? Frank fell victim to what negotiators call “framing.” Framing tells us what to focus on when we think about something. It affects our “inner story.”  The salesman’s pitch changed Frank’s inner story from “I need to stay on budget” to “Buying the expensive system is a small sacrifice if it means more time with the family.”

Even the smallest change in how something is presented can dramatically affect our decisions. Consider this classic framing problem, presented to doctors:

“Imagine that an outbreak of disease is expected to kill 600 people. Two treatments have been proposed. If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that no people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that all people will be saved. Which treatment would you choose?

Simultaneously, experimenters asked a similar group to respond to the same problem that had been negatively framed:

“Imagine that an outbreak of disease is expected to kill 600 people. Two treatments have been proposed.  If program C is adopted, 400 people will die. If program D is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which treatment would you choose?”

When the problem is framed in terms of ‘saving’ people, 72% opt for program A, the safe strategy, and only 28% for program B, the risky strategy. When the same problem was framed in terms of people “dying,” 28% opt for program C, the safe strategy, and 72% for program D, the risky strategy. In either case the likely result is 400 dead. The facts didn’t change, only the wording. Why the dramatic shift in results?

Daniel Kahnemen and Amos Tversky explain the results in their work on “prospect theory,” for which Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. They assert that

• The first priority is not to lose – humans are loss averse.

• Gains are secondary to not losing.

• Framing a decision in terms of possible loss motivates a person more strongly than framing it in terms of possible gain.

The point is not that loss-aversion is bad. (Where resources are scarce, for example, losing what you have could mean starvation – far worse than failing to gain something). The point is that changing the frame slightly can have a big impact, and lead to unexpected results.  How can we combat framing that interferes with our decisions?

Focus on your goals

Frank ended up spending more than he intended on that theater system because he lost sight of his goals when the salesman made an emotional appeal to the importance of family.  When presented with an alternative, ask yourself if it furthers your goal. Keeping his goal of staying on budget firmly in mind would have made it easier for Frank to ignore the salesman’s artful framing.

Think about your counterpart’s agenda

Remember that your negotiating counterpart has goals too.  They may or may not mesh with yours.  For example, a salesman may be on commission. Of course, this gives him a motive to push the most expensive items in inventory. Knowing this might lead Frank to question the salesman’s framing, and ask whether a more economical model might be a better fit for him.  It might also enable him to bargain on price with the salesman – better a lower commission than no sale at all.

Be mindful of framing

Framing happens all the time.  We emphasize what is important and discount what is not, sometimes without thinking about it.  Those we talk or write to – whether allies or rivals – do likewise. In his book, How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer says that the surest way to combat harmful framing is to think about it. Ask yourself whether the frame being used makes sense for you. Try intentionally framing the same facts in a different way – perhaps instead of a means to togetherness the expensive home theater is a wasteful luxury that will deprive Frank’s family of other things. Which frame seems closer to reality? By engaging in mindful, intentional examination of our frames, we can avoid their manipulative aspects.

Framing has its’ uses

While agreeing on price is the classic competitive negotiation, not every gain for you needs to be a loss for me; cooperative negotiators seek to create value by exploiting different goals and frames. If you and I have a dispute about an apple tree, we might spend a long time fighting if we use a competitive frame– but if we discover that you want the wood and I want the fruit, a new, cooperative, frame can maximize value and please us both.  We are unlikely to discover such opportunities for synergy unless we explore our counterparts’ perceptions, goals and needs – their frames relative to the negotiation.

Mediators use framing all the time.  Properly framing something can turn it from an insult into an understandable expression of frustration, can make our enemies look like they have much in common with us, and transform competition into an opportunity for creating value. Understanding framing can make us wiser, more prosperous, and less likely to fall victim to manipulation. It’s a powerful tool for any negotiator.

by Scott C. Van Soye


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Scott Van Soye
Managing Editor - Scott Van Soye is the managing editor of ADR Times. He is also a full-time mediator and arbitrator working with the Agency for Dispute Resolution with offices in Irvine, Beverly Hills and nationwide. He is a member of the California Bar, and practiced real estate, civil rights, and employment law for over twenty years. He holds an LL.M. in Dispute Resolution from Pepperdine University, where he is an adjunct professor of law. He welcomes your inquiries, and can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 616-1202, Ext. 721

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