The Framing Effect: A Glass of Water and a Used Mattress

Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

During a trip to the hospital, I was inevitably asked for a urine sample to help diagnose the shooting pain in my abdomen. Unfortunately, the timing of their request didn’t coincide with my ability to provide one. “No problem”, said the nurse, “whenever you’re ready” and left a specimen jar in the room with me. (I’m not sure why these need to be made of clear plastic which only seems to publicize the fact that you peed in a cup and are now forced to casually walk around with it.)

However, I was quite eager to do whatever it took to speed the diagnosis along. The solution to this particular task seemed easy enough; all I needed was a glass of water. Trouble was, while there was a faucet in the room, there was nothing to drink from.

Well, if you’ve followed the story carefully thus far, you know that technically there was a “cup” in the room, but it was meant to perform exactly the opposite task from the one I had in mind.

To my utterly rational brain, the hesitation didn’t make any sense. The “specimen” cup in the room was brand new and, by definition, sterile. Yet, I couldn’t quite bring myself to drink out of it even if would help the diagnosis.

If you put two containers, side by side, made of the same plastic in the same factory under the same conditions, but one looks like a urine sample cup and one looks like a drinking cup, it’s very difficult to ignore that distinction. Rather, urinating into a drinking cup is easier than drinking from an (unused) urine specimen cup. Curiously, once you’ve urinated in either cup, it’s fate and purpose is sealed permanently; a drinking cup can become a urine cup, but never the other way around.

Dan Ariely gave people cups of apple juice and, just before they drank it, he had half of the participants write the word “cyanide” on the cup. Most found it difficult to drink it even though they knew it was simply apple juice. This shows quite clearly that the framing of a situation radically shifts the perception.

I also did something most people would consider impossible — I sold a (barely) used mattress on Craigslist. Few things are as intimate and personal as a mattress. The notion that one or two other people (especially strangers) have slept on a mattress for a year is enough to steer most people away.

However, if you shift the framing slightly and put that bed in a hotel room with crisp white sheets and 6 pillows of various sizes, suddenly the concern about the (literally) thousand people who have slept on that mattress vanishes. Not only are people willing to sleep on a (very) used mattress, they consider it — in this context — to be pampering and even luxurious.

I harnessed all of these ideas when I wrote up the description. I also made sure to note that it would make a perfect “guest bedroom” mattress. By doing this, the person doing the buying isn’t worried about sleeping on a used mattress and any guests they have who will be sleeping on it assume they’ll be sleeping on a mattress formerly occupied by people they may not know. Everyone’s expectations in this scenario are set. It took a while, but I eventually sold the mattress through the right framing.

Tom Sawyer framed what he was doing to the other kids as an exclusive activity and got them to pay him to do his work. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier wanted to diversify the caloric intake of people in France and much of Europe, but no one wanted to eat the readily available potatoes. In response, he made it mandatory to do so. Naturally, when you require that people to do something, they tend to resist it quite strongly. When that approach inevitably failed, he did the opposite; he banned all but his wealthiest subjects from eating potatoes and even placed guards around the “royal” gardens in which they were grown. The population concluded that, if something was worth guarding, then clearly it was worth stealing. However, Partmentier instructed the guards to not be very good at their jobs, accept as many bribes as they could get, and withdrew the guards at night. The greedy crowd couldn’t help but “steal” the potatoes he wanted them to eat in the first place. Forcing people to do something wasn’t as effective as forbidding them from doing it.

Ataturk of (what would eventually be) Turkey wanted to modernize by eliminating the veils that women had traditionally worn. Knowing that an outright ban on them would result in backlash, he instead required that prostitutes wear them. Women were certainly free to wear them as they chose, but prostitutes had no choice. The veils all but vanished the very next day.

Clearly, the way in which an idea, product, or object is framed wildly affects the impression people derive from it.

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