Brain Scans Show Proper Wording Can Sidestep Thought Process

Brain Scans Show Proper Wording Can Sidestep Thought Process
June 30, 2017

You have probably heard the expression about looking at a glass as half-full or half-empty: to see the best or the worst in any situation.

What you probably did not know is that every time you do that, you are tapping into a gigantic body of research that spans psychology, economics and mass communication.

Framing, or the Framing Effect, as it is known depending on the scientific field, covers how presenting the same information with a different spin or context can change the way people think or behave.

Labeling meat as 93 percent lean instead of 7 percent fat makes it sound healthier. Zooming in or out on video of a protest can make it appear like more or fewer people attended. Phrasing risks as a possible loss or possible gain influences whether people will take that risk.

Glasses half full and half emptySpecifically with risk-taking, scientists know that the Framing Effect works, but they do not know exactly how. Some believe that it is an emotional response: that the mind responds to the hope of reward or the fear of loss in deciding whether to take a risk. Others think that the mind takes shortcuts so we can respond quickly to risky scenarios.

Now a new study from Duke University attempts to end the debate by monitoring how the brain operates when we make decisions about risk. After hundreds of functional MRI scans and thousands of answered questions, mental shortcuts were the big winner.

Rosa Li, a neuroscience PhD candidate at Duke and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Neuroscience used functional MRI imaging, a type of scan that shows what parts of a person’s brain are active in real time, to monitor how the brain works when taking risks into account.

She posed more than 100 scenarios each to 134 volunteers, and monitored how their brains worked when their answers either agreed or disagreed with the Framing Effect.

One scenario the researchers used involved getting $20 from a casino and a choice to walk away with $10 or bet the full $20 on a coin-flip. The Framing Effect states that when the first choice is phrased as “keeping” the $10, people tend to choose the guaranteed money. When the first choice is phrased as “losing” the $10, people tend to choose the coin-flip.

As the participants listened to these scenarios and made their choices, they did show emotional responses, but people seemed to have similar levels of emotional stimulation whether their answers followed the Framing Effect or not.

On the other hand, when the answers coincided with the Framing Effect, the parts of the brain responsible for active thinking and reasoning looked like the brain was at rest. Only when the answers went against those predicted by the Framing Effect, did those regions light up.

When the researchers went the other way, using the MRI images to predict whether a volunteer’s response obeyed or went against the Framing Effect, again, the emotional responses were not effective predictors, but when the volunteers really had to think about their answer, they tended to disobey the Framing Effect.

No one is exactly sure why the brain has these built-in shortcuts, but Li says it is possible that it was advantageous for early humans to not have to think through every decision when going for guaranteed benefits and avoiding guaranteed harm seemed to work well as a general rule.

That said, research like this is important because it shows that the correct choice of words has the power to sidestep a well-thought-out response, and drive someone to act more on instinct. 

That is not to say that following the advice of the Framing Effect is necessarily the wrong choice. Humans would not have evolved these shortcuts if they were not beneficial.  That said, whether you’re contemplating how full a glass is or deciding whether to take a big risk, do yourself a favor, and look at it both ways, and get your brain involved.

—Daniel Lane
 Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.
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