Monday, June 18, 2018

Manipulation through language


Let’s assume that you got the flu. Now you have two options: Either you consult your doctor. She’ll prescribe you medicines and you know that probably after a week you’ll be better. Or you take to your bed and you let the flu run itself out. Then you know that it is likely to happen that it will last seven days. What will you do?
This case made me think of the “Asian disease problem” described and investigated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It runs as follows (I quote from Kahneman, see below):
(Case I) 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 that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:
- If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.
- If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved.
When asked most people prefer program A, so they prefer the certain option over the gamble.
Take now this case:
(Case II) 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 that the exact scientific estimates of the consequences of the programs are as follows:
- 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.
When asked which program they prefer now most people prefer program D, so they prefer the gamble over the certain option. However, Case I and Case II are exactly the same! What is different is the wording of the problem, but the consequences of programs A/C and B/D are identical (see source 2 below). Or as Kahneman says it, the cases are framed in different ways.
Now you might think that only laymen are so “irrational” and that experts will know better. Not true. Once Tversky presented a version of the Asian disease problem to a group of public-health professionals. “Like other people”, so Kahneman, “these professionals were susceptible to the framing effects”. So they, too, chose like the laymen in the test above. And he continues: “It is somewhat worrying that the officials who make decisions that affect everyone’s health can be swayed by such a superficial manipulation”, as is corroborated by other investigations.
Cynically, one might say that in program A in Case I the glass is half full, while in program B the glass is half empty. In Case II this is just so for program D and program C respectively. But in the end, we get the same amount of water for quenching our thirst, whichever option you choose. Marketing professionals know that sometimes you can best say that the glass is half full, while on other occasions you can best say that it is half empty. They choose their words according to their intentions. Politicians often do the same. The word “ragheads” for Arabs or Muslims is a case in point. But didn’t already George Orwell tell us how they use language to manipulate our view on the world? Nevertheless, in the end, framing can be used to the good and to the bad.
But back to the start of this blog: Do you know already whether you’ll consult a doctor when you have got the flu?

Sources:
1) Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin Books, 2012; pp. 368-369
2) http://www.workingpsychology.com/lossaver.html

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