The Framing Effect: Influence Your Audience By Setting The Context

Is the glass half full or half empty? How does seeing it one way frame everything else you later decide about both glass and water? Would seeing it the other way change your view?

Imagine you and I are walking across the desert with a single canteen. You’re thirsty and ask me how much water we have left. I look and tell you not to worry, we have plenty. The canteen is half full. You take a drink. Or maybe after looking I mutter uh oh under my breath with a worried expression and tell you the canteen is half empty. You decide to wait a little longer for your drink.

In either case there was exactly the same amount of water in the canteen, however my reaction and determination of how much water is in the canteen frames the situation. It gives a context to a canteen half full and half empty. That frame, that context, alters your decisions and judgements about the canteen, the water inside, as well as your behavior when it comes to taking a drink.

Framing a picture frame

The Framing Effect

The framing effect is the idea that manipulating the way information is presented can influence and alter decision making and judgement about that information. Through the use of images, words, and by presenting a general context around the information presented we can influence how people think about that information.

Framing is used exceedingly often in politics. One side sets the context for passing a bill as the end of humanity while the other side frames the situation of not passing the bill as the end of humanity. If you really want to understand how framing works study a political election in great detail as objectively as possible. Learn the facts and then watch how both sides present those facts to you in order to influence you.

The context in which information is delivered shapes assumptions and perceptions about that information. Information taken out of context is often meaningless. Information within a context, within a frame is altered by that context and frame.

People reach conclusions based on the framework within which a situation is presented.

Positive frames tend to elicit positive feelings and result in risk taking and proactive behavior. Negative frames tend to elicit negative feelings and result in risk aversion and reactive behavior. Stress and the pressure of time amplify both.

A common sales technique is to present your product in a positive frame, presenting your competitors product in a negative frame, and presenting the customer with a time sensitive offer requiring a quick decision.

When people are exposed to multiple and conflicting frames it causes cognitive dissonance and the framing effect is reduced and neutralized leaving people to rely more on their own internal frames that have been created over time.

A frame is a reference point for all future decisions and judgements. Frames set expectations, which leads us to…


The Expectation Effect

If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.
—Henry Ford

The expectation effect is the idea that perception and behavior change as a result of personal expectations or the expectations of others. Once a person believes something, the belief alone creates the possibility that it will happen.

Some examples of the expectation effect that may be familiar to you:

  • Halo effect– an employee’s performance is rated better based on overall positive impressions and not specifically their performance
  • Hawthorne effect – employees become more productive based on the belief that changes to their work environment will increase productivity
  • Pygmalion effect – students perform better/worse when teachers expect them to
  • Placebo effect – patients experience treatment benefits based on the belief that the treatment will work
  • Rosenthal effectteachers treat students differently based on expectations of how they will perform
  • Demand characteristics – people respond in interviews or experiments in ways they believe are expected by the interviewer or experimenter

In order for the expectation effect to come into play the expectations set must be credible. It’s important that we believe something may happen in order to to create the expectations that influence us. Think again about the framing effect for a moment. A large part of framing is setting expectations by placing information inside a certain context.

A credible presentation will lead to the expectation effect in about 30% of any audience. Being somewhat vague helps as it leads people to interpret things based on their internal expectations. Think about astrology or psychic predictions. Both are presented vaguely. You interpret them with your own expectations altering your behavior to the degree where the predictions come true.

The expectation effect is temporary in nature. Any changed behavior reverts back to a baseline after a time, which leads us to…

Long exposure capturing lights

The Exposure Effect

The exposure effect, also called the mere exposure effect, is the idea that repeated exposures to things that we have neutral or positive feelings about increases the likability of those things. We favor the familiar and mistrust the new and different. Repetition breeds familiarity. We develop preferences for things simply because they are familiar

The exposure effect is one of the basic concepts behind advertising. You see an ad in a magazine or a commercial on TV over and over again and after a time become more likely to buy the product being advertised.

Repeated exposure to an ad works better than a single exposure. For most businesses you’re better off buying a small ad in the same location in the local paper every week for 6 months than you would be taking out a full page ad once.

It’s important that the perception to the stimuli being repeated is neutral or positive. Repeated exposure to negative stimuli will more likely amplify the negative perception.

The strongest exposure effect is seen with photographs, meaningful words, names, and simple shapes. The weakest effects are seen with icons, people, and auditory stimuli. Complex and interesting tends to lead to a stronger effect than simple and boring.

As the number of exposures and the duration of each exposure increases, the effect begins to weaken. There’s a point of diminishing returns. Familiarity can also breed contempt. Brief and subtle (subliminal) exposures work best, especially when each exposure is separated by some time. The effect will be strongest for the first 10 impressions.

Once again let’s think back to the framing effect. Framing is not a one time thing. You often build a frame over time with repeated exposures to the context you’re trying to set. A series of small and consistent messages can build a frame that will be seen in either a positive or negative light.

Think branding. Branding makes great use of the exposure effect. The more exposures to your brand (assuming your brand is initially seen in a neutral or positive light) eventually leads to a more positive perception of your brand. You create a positive message that builds a frame and your consistency with that message increases the exposure leading to more positive associations with your brand.

The Effect of Design

Hopefully after reading through the above you can see how each of these three effects can be put to use in your designs to influence your audience.

Framing the Tower

Framing Effect

Visual design is framing. Your design sets a mood, creates the emotion, and puts your audience in the right frame of mind to absorb the message. Your visuals set the context for the message. The initial impressions your design conveys frames everything that comes after.

The frame you create needs to be credible. It needs to be based on reality. You can’t make up a story that isn’t true and expect it to stick. The more in harmony your visuals are with the company message the better the frame and the stronger the framing effect will be.

Within a design use positive framing to move people to action and negative frames to move them toward inaction. Frame your own message in a positive light and if you’re ok with it frame your competition in a negative light. If your competition has built a positive frame around their product offer another frame that conflicts with theirs.

On a different note think about how your design can create a positive experience for your visitors and what kind of a frame that positive experience builds. Is your site usable? Is it enjoyable? Does it make people want to spend time on the site and come back for more? Yes or no, what do you think people will tell others about your site and what kind of frame will that build for those people?

Placebo Meds

Expectation Effect

Your frame will help create expectations and the expectations you set will help persuade your audience (PDF). Remember not to make promises you can’t keep. The expectation effect lasts only so long. Broken promises create a new set of expectations that you probably prefer not be set.

Set expectations for your audience in a credible way rather than letting them form their own unbiased conclusions. Don’t lie, but do nudge them toward the conclusions you want them to draw.

You hear all the time to talk benefits over features. Features don’t set expectations. Benefits do. Try to get people to imagine themselves using and enjoying your products or services. It will set a positive expectation in their mind.

In your own work remember not to let expectations inhibit your creativity. Don’t try to live up to the expectations of others or set expectations for yourself based on work you admire.

When it comes to usability think conventions. What are conventions? They’re expectations about how something will behave. In regards to testing be careful about influencing test subjects by setting expectations for them. As designers we’re naturally biased in favor of our designs. We don’t want to pass that bias on to those testing our designs and have them react in ways they think we expect them to react.

Advertising exposure

Exposure Effect

The expectation effect has limited duration. Frames have a more lasting effect when built over time. Increasing exposures helps both.

Be consistent and subtle in your message as both lead to a stronger effect. Use photographs (product images) and more meaningful words. Exposure to names works well. Think brands and product names. Make them meaningful. Every page of your site should make obvious the brand name. Every product page should make obvious the name of the product.

Repeat calls to action across pages instead of leaving them in a single place to increase exposure. Expose people to your message on and off your site prior to forcing the call to action on them.

Be subtle. Too much in your face message weakens the effect. You don’t need to always push the buy message at people. Show them images of people enjoying your product without asking them to buy. Weave happy testimonials through your site. Offer subtle mentions from time to time in blog posts that your visitors will be happy with your products.

When it comes to advertising remember that there’s a diminishing return to exposure. Think ad blindness. Mix up where you advertise and remember the exposure effect is strongest for the first 10 or so impressions and that placing some time between exposures also helps strengthen the effect.

With new and different designs expect some resistance if your design deviates enough from the norm. Be aware that usability conventions work in part because people have been exposed to them time and again. We mistrust the new until we’ve seen it enough for it to become familiar. Consider most any famous artist or revolutionary thinkers throughout history. Many were heavily criticized during their lifetimes. Exposure to their “radical” ideas led to familiarity and eventually a more positive critique.


Let me share some advice I recently read on launching a new product. My apologies to the person who offered the advice since I can’t remember where it came from. I think it was Brian Clarke, but I’m not entirely sure.

Prior to launching a product start mentioning the problem it aims to solve on your blog. Talk first about the problem that you and others likely have. Then begin talking about existing solutions to the problem in part to help your audience and in part to make clear how none of the existing solutions are ideal. Finally offer your product, your new solution to the problem that’s better than any of the current solutions to the problem.

Now think about the above in terms of the three effects we’ve been discussing here. Your repeated discussion about the problem and solutions increases exposure. Your mention of the inadequacies of existing solutions sets negative expectations for them and indirectly sets positive expectations for any solution that overcomes these inadequacies. By the time you launch, you’ve built a positive frame as the context for your product. The combination of all three should have your audience predisposed to wanting to buy your product at launch.

The framing effect, the expectation effect, and the exposure effect are three very powerful ways to influence people in your favor, especially when all three work in combination.

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  1. Very nicely written-these are excellent factors to keep in mind during presentations, discussions, and writing as well. In team-building and group facilitation situations we often use elements of the “expectation effect.” Thanks for the clear info!

    • Thanks Kenny.

      In your team building situations how do apply the elements of the expectation effect? Is it the Halo and Hawthorne effects that come into play or is more like the Pygmalion effect where you get more from employees by expecting more from them?

  2. Thank you and well stated. Great insight into the motivating factors present in human psychology. We make decisions based on the information presented to us at any given time so it makes perfect sense to influence decisions with positive impressions supported by sustainable facts. Understanding motivation is key to guiding behavior.

    • Thanks Robert. So true about how we make decisions. I think this is one of those things we all know, but sometimes forget to consider when designing. Everything thing we do influences everything that comes after.

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