Framing Bias in Action

Many of us would remember the young girl-old woman illusion. The experiment was done with two groups. The first group was shared a story about a young girl, and the second group listened to the narrative of an old woman. When the same picture was projected on the screen, members in the first group saw a young girl whereas people from the second group saw an old woman.

That’s the framing effect: our choices are influenced by how the information or situation is presented to us. 

Like everything else… just because we are aware of framing bias doesn’t mean we will overcome it… its critical to be consciously vigilant about what’s going on in our heads. Here’s my recent experience of the framing effect and its perils.

Couple of weeks back, I went for a short vacation to Cape Town and Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa. Our first stop was Cape Town, which is a beautiful city. Our driver was colored; for 3 days I heard him speak about how apartheid has never ended in SA: how the three races – black, colored and whites – maintain the divide, how the colored and blacks are not treated well by the whites…. He went on and on, giving loads of examples. May be he was right, or may be he was wrong… that aside, I didn’t realize the effect this conversation was having on me.

We reached Phinda Game Reserve, a private property, mostly visited by whites. I have travelled extensively around the world and have never felt conscious of my race and color. But, for the first few hours in the lodge, without realizing, I became conscious of my color. We were the only colored guests. I kept wondering – “I think I am not being treated well. The resort staff are paying more attention to the white guests and ignoring us”. We were sitting with two other couples, our safari partners and felt alienated from them. And I was a little angry with myself for choosing the resort.

Then I paused!! Thank god for our ability to pause and reflect. I realized what was happening with me. I was experiencing a framing bias – from what the driver in Cape Town said… he subtly influenced my thinking and feeling.

With this realization, I was quickly able to move out of the framing effect and enjoyed the wonderful resort – The Forest Lodge in Phinda and it’s amazing hospitality. Few learnings from my recent experience:

  • Acknowledge that it’s very easy for our brains to make fallacies, no one is immune to cognitive biases.
  • Always be conscious of our thoughts, behaviour, and decisions
  • Question them with an open mind
  • Be ready to make changes – in behaviours, decisions or thoughts.
  • Most importantly, not to allow emotions to lead the way…

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