If I tell you that seven of ten doctors believe a medication is helpful, the positive weight of the seven endorsements will trump potential negatives. But if I tell you that three of ten doctors believe that a medication should be avoided, the weight of those three negative critiques will overpower potential positives. The information in either case is the same – the only difference is how it's framed.
Our susceptibility to the framing bias has been demonstrated in study after study (most notably by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman), and now a new study by Concordia University researchers shows how framing influences our selection of love interests.
Hundreds of study participants were given positively and negatively framed descriptions of potential partners. For example:
"Seven out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is kind." [positive frame]
"Three out of 10 people who know this person think that this person is not kind." [negative frame]
The researchers tested the framing effect across six attributes that are known from previous research to rank high in importance to men and women; four that are important to either sex, and two that are important to both sexes:
- Attractive body (usually more important to men)
- Attractive face (usually more important to men)
- Earning potential (usually more important to women)
- Ambition (usually more important to women)
- Kindness (equally important to both)
- Intelligence (equally important to both)
Participants evaluated both “high-quality” (e.g. seven out of 10 people think this person is kind) and “low-quality” (e.g. three out of 10 people think this person is kind) prospective mates for each of these attributes, in the context of a short-term fling or a long-term relationship.
What the research team found is that more often than not, women were significantly less likely to show interest in men described with the low-quality frame, even though they were being presented with exactly the same information as they were in the high-quality frames.
"When it comes to mate selection, women are more attuned to negatively framed information due to an evolutionary phenomenon called 'parental investment theory,'" says study co-author and Concordia marketing professor Gad Saad, a noted researcher on the evolutionary and biological roots of consumer behavior.
"Choosing someone who might be a poor provider or an unloving father would have serious consequences for a woman and for her offspring. So we hypothesized that women would naturally be more leery of negatively framed information when evaluating a prospective mate.”
In particular, women were most susceptible to the framing bias when evaluating a man’s earning potential and ambition.
Men, on the other hand, fell prey to framing most often when evaluating a woman’s physical attractiveness.
While these results at first seem to reinforce stereotypes about how women and men seek mates, they make sense in light of what we know about evolutionary psychology. And they provide an important takeaway for both sexes: before you draw a final conclusion about a would-be mate, consider whether you’re being overly influenced by how their good or bad attributes have been framed, either by others or by the person her or himself. Better to check your bias early than suffer its consequences later.
The study was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter@neuronarrative, at his website The Daily Brain, and on YouTube at Your Brain Channel. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.