The framing effect on climate change communication and policy making.

The framing effect on climate change communication and policy making.

Hannah and Thomas had both recently become interested in the environment and the politics of climate change after seeing a few news articles on the topic. Last week Hannah watched a very convincing documentary by a leading politician about the dangers of climate change and how humans are contributing to it. Thomas’ father worked in manufacturing and was skeptical about the contributions of humans to the change in environment, his father had always said that humans could not change the environment. Both Hannah and Thomas agreed that although they had different views on climate change there are mixed messages in the press.

Many controversial topics in the media are framed in such a way that benefit the person or company that is responsible for placing the message. The framing effect is one of the major heuristics (short-cuts in decision-making) that is used in the media. Framing works by wording a message in a persuasive way to influence the thinking of the reader (Kuhn, 1997). Communicators can make a choice to present the possible outcomes of a medical interventions as either (a) 80% chance of surviving (i.e., positively framed) or (b) 20% chance of death (i.e., negatively framed). On the topic of climate change communication researchers have found that a negatively framed (highlighting losses) message decreases individual intentions to behave environmentally whilst positively framed messages (highlighting the possibility of losses not materializing) produce a stronger intention to act in a pro-environmental way (Morton et al., 2011).

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One important factor for policy makers is that in the United States the public do not think that climate change is a concern, compared to other policies. Every January the Pew Research Centre for The People and The Press conduct a large poll of the public’s belief in which of 20 policies are of most important.  Between 2007 and 2009 the policy of “dealing with global warming” was consistently ranked at the bottom of 20 priorities (see the table below).

% considering each as a “top priority” January 2007 January 2008 January 2009
Strengthening the nation’s economy 68 75 85
Securing social security 64 64 63
Securing Medicare 63 60 60
Reducing crime 62 54 46
Reducing health care costs 68 69 59
Strengthening the military 46 42 44
Dealing with illegal immigration 55 51 41
Reducing middle class taxes 48 46 43
Dealing with global trade 34 37 31
Dealing with global warming 38 35 30

To aid in breaking through the communication barrier policy makers can tailor their messages to specific audiences by framing their messages. News reporters (e.g., news about an event), policymakers (e.g., employment statistics), advertisers (e.g. vitamin advertisements), and public speakers (e.g., conference talks) already use framing effectively.

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The framing of climate change information has been used successfully by John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008. In his 2004 election campaign the Democratic party presidential candidate Senator John Kerry made strategic use of the public accountability framing (i.e., we are responsible for our environment). Senator Kerry compared the use of different frames (i.e., denial or acceptance of climate change) to the administrations use of intelligence to invade Iraq. In Obama’s 2008 presidential candidate campaign he made use of a sound bite “creating green jobs and fuelling economic recovery.” Creating green jobs in industry with alternatives to gasoline (or petrol) was heralded as a way to benefit the economy by creating more jobs and as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions. We can see here that Kerry chose to use a public accountability frame whilst Obama used an economic frame – both frames were used towards the same aim but tailored differently. Famously, Gore in his 2008 WE campaign picked a moral frame for climate change communication.

We have seen here that the framing effect can be used effectively by communicators for any message (e.g., advertising, policies etc). On the topic of climate change communication, we can put the framing effect to work by carefully considering how we would like to frame a message to our intended audience. In the cases of Hannah and Thomas they may have both seen the same information presented in different ways (i.e., the frame), the frames that they have encountered helped them come to their own decisions about climate change.

The framing effect in bonobos, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys.

The framing effect in bonobos, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys.

Noam Chimpsky had had a long day playing with the other chimpanzees. Noam was starting to feel hungry so headed towards the eating area of his enclosure. He had previously stored some fruit on a branch of a large tree. On the way to collect his fruit Noam noticed that one of the other chimpanzees had a new fruit that he had never seen before. Noam was determined to try some of the new fruit. He collected some of his fruit from his stash of fruit and went towards the other chimpanzee who was still carrying the new fruit. Noam wanted to trade some of his fruit for the new fruit. He stopped in front of the other chimpanzee, placed his fruit on the ground and tried to trade. The chimpanzee with the new fruit was happy to trade but wanted more fruit then Noam was willing to give. Noam decided that trading was a bad idea if he had give away too much fruit so he went off to his tree, with his fruit in hand and settled down to eat – afterall, Noam could try some of the new fruit another day.

Noam’s choice was to trade a small amount of food for the new fruit or to trade a lot of his fruit for the new fruit. In the end, Noam decided that the new fruit was not worth a lot of his fruit. Like humans Noam is susceptible to the framing effect. For Noam, his dilemma was to accept a negatively framed trade were he would lose out by giving away too much of his fruit or to broker a positively framed trade were he would give away a small amount of fruit for the new fruit.


The framing effect states that the manner in which options are presented (or framed) can influence how we evaluate choices. We evaluate the options relative to a reference point (i.e., the amount of fruit the Noam had to start with). Changes that seem to worsen the status quo (i.e., Noam giving away a lot fruit for the new fruit) are treated differently to changes that improve the status quo (i.e., Noam gaining the new fruit after trading for a small amount of fruit). The way in which we (and Noam) perceive the choice is important because we are more willing to invest in a choice that is positively framed, rather than negatively framed. The framing effect has been documented extensively in human decision-making in areas such as financial trading (Seo et al., 2010) and medical decision-making (Bornstein et a., 2001). However, as we have seen in the case of Noam other animals, other than humans also exhibit the framing effect. According to molecular-clock estimates our genus split with other primates around 23 million years ago (Schneider et al., 2001), which means that we share a common ancestor with other primates. We share some of our decision-making processes (e.g., the framing effect) with the other animals.

One study the sought to investigate the framing effect in other primates used 40 bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (Pan trogladytes) (Krupenye et al., 2015). The apes were required to make choices between a positively framed option that provided a preferred food item (fruit) and a negatively framed option with a different food item (peanuts). The apes completed 5 sessions of 12 trials on separate days. Both the bonobos and the chimpanzees choose the positively framed option more than the negatively framed option demonstrating that they were susceptible to the framing effect. Furthermore, male apes were more susceptible then female apes to the framing effect.


Capuchin monkeys (Cebus appella) have also shown the framing effect in several different studies (Chen et al., 2017; Lakshminarayanan et al., 2011). In their natural environments capuchins live in complex environments, they are socially sophisticated primates whose native environment requires careful management of their scarce resources. The study by Lakshminarayanan et al., (2011) found that capuchins are able to learn how to trade tokens for food. When trading tokens they are susceptible to framing effect for positively and negatively framed choices.

The results of the capuchin, bonobo and chimpanzee studies suggest that the mechanisms that drive the framing effect is evolutionarily ancient. Some of our ‘human’ economic biases are shared by Noam and the other primates throughout the primate order. These studies highlight the importance of comparative research in understanding the origins of cognitive biases and individual differences in human decision-making. To understand the human brain and decision-making we should complement of research by looking towards our distant relatives.