Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Explaining Outcome Type Interactions with Frame: Aspiration Level and the Value Function

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Explaining Outcome Type Interactions with Frame: Aspiration Level and the Value Function

Article excerpt

Research on framing effects has revealed cases where the type of outcome at risk (e.g., human lives vs. animal lives) affects the magnitude of the framing effect. Some authors have appealed to the shape of the value function as predicting when framing effects will occur: The more valuable the outcome type, the more nonlinear its value function, and the larger the resulting framing effect (Levin & Chapman, 1990). However, having a more or less nonlinear value function cannot explain situations in which participants strongly prefer the same option in both frames. Another factor that may be at work in these types of outcome effects is an aspiration level (AL; Lopes, 1987; Schneider, 1992), which determines how acceptable the options are and combines (or competes) with the risk attitude encouraged by frame. The results described here indicate that differences in the shape of the value function between outcome types are evident but are inconsistent between framed losses and gains, though nonlinearity in the value function can be increased with a manipulation that also encourages framing effects. The results also demonstrate that an AL can lead to the same predominant risk preference in the positive and negative frame. These findings indicate that the shape of the value function and the AL each play a role in outcome type interactions with frame, and in some cases, a combination of the two factors may be at work.

In framing effects, objectively identical outcomes described as gains (positive frame) or losses (negative frame) typically produce risk attitudes that are risk averse for framed gains and risk seeking for framed losses. For instance, the Asian disease problem (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981) described a situation where a disease is expected to infect 600 people. The two options for dealing with the disease were as follows.

Positive frame

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

Negative frame

If Program C is adopted, 400 people will die.

If Program D is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

In the original study, 72% of participants chose Program A, the certain option, in the positive frame, but 78% of participants chose Program D, the risky option, when the options were in the negative frame. Tversky and Kahneman explained the framing effect through two factors: the shape of the value function (concave downward for gains and concave upward for losses) and the reference point established by the frame, which leads options to be seen as gains in the positive frame and as losses in the negative frame. The shape of the value function is believed to establish the risk attitude for the outcome domain (risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).

Although framing effects are robust, there are also numerous studies in which these effects have not occurred. In Levin and Chapman (1990), participants failed to show framing effects for AIDS patients when the groups at risk were "devalued" (e.g., intravenous drug users) and preferences in both frames were split between the two options: 50% choice of the risky option in the positive frame, 39% in the negative frame. Wang, Simons, and Bredart (2001) found similar results with a scenario featuring 6 billion extraterrestrial lives: 52% choice of the risky option in the positive frame, 52% in the negative frame. Wang et al. maintained that their participants simply did not care enough about extraterrestrial lives to be vulnerable to framing effects. Levin and Chapman argued that their failure to find a framing effect for "devalued" groups arose from participants' having a more linear value function for less valuable outcomes (see also Fagley & Miller, 1997). Outcome types for which people have near-linear value functions are less likely to produce framing effects because each life saved or lost increases or decreases subjective value by the same amount,1 such that the gain frame fails to inspire risk aversion and the loss frame does not excite risk seeking. …

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