Framing is one of the best documented effects in the judgment and decision making literature. Two logically equivalent presentations of the same data, such as describing a surgical operation in terms of the death rate or survival rate, can have very different impacts on behaviour.
It’s almost inevitable, then, that framing might be expected to be extensively used in the spin wars between opposing political parties. But other than this paper, which explores how framing tax burdens in terms of percentage of income or monetary amounts can affect notions of fairness, I can’t find a lot of relevant papers.
Perhaps the best solution is to go out into the field looking for examples. And today, with the comprehensive spending review, I found a great example. Here is how the review is summarised on the Guardian homepage:
• Home Office budget falls 6%, Environment and Communities by 10%
• Education department budget increased to £53bn
• Local government spending to be cut by 2%
Now when dealing with large figures of money, as you’ll find in government budgets, expressing a change in terms of percentages is a good way to hide the magnitude of change. All of these percentage changes seem relatively low, ranging from 10%-2%. Their impact seems relatively small, thanks to the percentage frame.
Contrastingly, the one increase in budget is framed as a total aggregate amount: £53bn. This number seems large – they must be vastly increasing the size of the school budget! This is another framing illusion, however. Looking at the Treasury documents, education spending is forecast at £52.8bn in 2014-2015, and only increases to £53.2bn in 2015-2016, an increase which is actually below forecast inflation (meaning a cut in real terms). Compare this to the 6% reduction in the Home Office budget, which takes spending from £10.4bn to £9.9bn. Or the 10% cut in Environment and Communities, from £1.7bn to £1.6bn, and the reduction in Local Government Spending from £54.8bn to £54.5bn (the figures and percentages don’t match up perfectly due to the numbers being presented in nominal amounts, with the percentages as real changes).
These differences in framing aren’t random; they are systematically designed to minimise the psychological impact of the net overall cuts. These figures from the Guardian likely originate from Government sources, so they help minimise potential opposition to these cuts. A less devious presentation would give before and after figures for total spending in each area, allowing percentage changes to be inferred by the reader.
One important impact of framing on the political discourse is that opposing parties might fight merely to have their favoured frames become the dominant presentation. An incumbent party might attempt to focus attention on percentage changes, while opposition parties attempt to frame these policies in terms of monetary amounts. An end result might be that the election of a new government, seemingly opposed to the previous government’s policies, might only lead to a change in framing and not real policy change. UK residents should prepare for no major changes in policy whoever they vote for in the next election. Ed Balls was on a recent edition of Newsnight, championing means-testing of winter fuel payments, a policy that he repeatedly said would save £100m a year. Jeremy Paxman, the master framer, quickly retorted that this change would only lead to a 1/1000th change in the deficit (0.1%). (Notice how Balls uses the monetary amount frame to attempt to overstate the true change from a populist cut.)