When you want an idea to be considered on its merits, it can be very hard to overcome two aspects of human nature that get in the way. If you want to reduce resistance and create space for the idea to get thoughtful consideration, how you frame your proposal can make all the difference.
Imagine walking into a new cafe. As you look through the menu, you see it’s chock full of fabulous treats that have your mouth watering in anticipation. Some items are noticeably more expensive than others. You see those items have a red asterisk next to the price.
Your eyes travel to the bottom of the menu, where the red asterisk is explained. Apparently there’s a new tax on unhealthy items.
Which menu item are you more likely to order — one not being taxed or one being taxed as an unhealthy food?
We value freedom of choice
Chances are, you’re going to order one of the “sin tax” foods. Just to show them who’s boss.
That’s what happened in a study with adults selecting lunchtime meals. When pricing changes were framed as a tax on unhealthy items, more people ordered the unhealthy foods. But when pricing changes were framed as a discount for healthy foods, demand for the healthy menu items increased.
Why? Because we value freedom of choice and we may well push back or rebel if we feel it’s been threatened in even minor ways. Said one Cornell researcher, “It’s clear that people value freedom of choice. When policies seem to encourage good choices, rather than limit bad ones, we see a much more positive response.”
There’s an additional factor at play here, too. And it may be deeply rooted in our biology.
Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
A Duke University study found that chimps and bonobos, our closest living primate relatives, exhibit similar biases. Chimps and bonobos were more likely to choose a certain food when they were offered a smaller amount of that food but sometimes got more, than when they were initially offered more of that food but sometimes got less — despite receiving equal average payoffs in both scenarios.
Said the researcher, “Historically, researchers thought these kinds of biases must be a product of human culture, or the way we’re socialized, or our experience with financial markets. But the fact that chimps and bonobos, our closest living primate relatives, exhibit the same biases suggests they’re deeply rooted in our biology.”
So Bing Crosby was on the mark, it turns out. We prefer something more when its positive rather than its negative attributes are highlighted, even when the payoff is about the same either way.
How you frame your idea or proposal can make the difference between careful consideration and swift pushback. Taking a page from both behavioral economics and evolutionary biology, you can reduce resistance and create space for a thoughtful response by:
- Framing the idea in positive terms instead of negative.
- Framing the idea so that it allows and encourages good choice instead of limiting bad choice.
- If you want to persuade your partner to try out healthier dinner recipes, “How about that new salad recipe for dinner? It’s been getting rave reviews online” is likely to be more successful than, “I want you to eat fewer carbs so I’m making salad for dinner.”
- If you want better compliance with poop scooping on walking trails, “While you walk this community trail today, please help keep our children and dogs healthy (and everyone’s feet clean) by picking up after your dog. If you pick up after someone else’s dog, we’ll love you even more!” is more in line with the research than, “You will be fined $100 if you fail to clean up after your dog.” (This one’s been playing out in my little town of Peterborough, NH.)
- If you want your $5000 within 30 days, “We’ll accept a settlement of $5555 and if payment is made within 30 days we’ll discount that by 10%” is a more effective frame than “We’ll accept a settlement of $5000 and if payment isn’t made within 30 days we’ll require an additional 10%.”