Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Framing Effects and Default Implicatures

On International Women's Day we are delighted to host a research post by María Caamaño-Alegre (University of Valladolid). Today she is presenting her new paper, "On Glasses Half Full or Half Empty: Understanding Framing Effects in Terms of Default Implicatures", published in Synthese in 2021.

María Caamaño-Alegre

Do we prefer our glasses half full to half empty? If so, is it rational that we have such preference? It's an empirically well-established fact that subjects’ preferences change depending on whether the described options are framed either positively or negatively. The variations in how subjects respond to positively or negatively framed descriptions of the same issue are called “framing effects”, and they have traditionally been understood as signs of irrationality.

Framing effects seem to be in conflict with the normative principle usually known as the “principle of extensionality” or the “invariance principle”, which is a common assumption in rational choice theory. According to this principle, different ways of presenting the same set of possible options should not change the subjects’ choices with respect to those options. 

The pioneering studies by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman shed light on the way individuals process information, by emphasizing the connection between positive/negative framing and the interpretation of the framed options in terms of gains or losses. However, the underlying semantic-pragmatic nature of this phenomenon is not analyzed by them and, with few exceptions, remains unexplored. 

My paper examines the semantic-pragmatic features of framing effects, thereby offering a unifying explanation of them in terms of default implicatures, which are interpretations adding information to that literally conveyed by a sentence. The shared cultural background regarding standard uses of frames triggers a default interpretation in the following terms: for negative frames, negative means improbable and negative, which in turn means worse than usual; for positive frames, positive means improbable and positive, which in turn means better than usual.

This view of framing effects has important implications for the rationality/irrationality debate, since it shows that the different default implicatures conveyed by alternative frames seem relevant for judgement on the described options. It thus strengthens the arguments opposing the traditional understanding of the principle of invariance. 

Moreover, additional reasons are also provided to support the rationality of framing effects, since once the normative principle of invariance is reformulated to be sensitive to the implicit information conveyed by frames, framing effects can no longer be considered as violations of such principle. As a consequence, my account shifts the focus of the controversy, from rationality or irrationality of judgement (or choice) to that of interpretation, for the central question to pursue is: when is it rational to interpret on the basis of defaults?

Ultimately, my analysis paves the way for a unified account of framing effects, showing the connection between previously unrelated explanations invoking different cognitive heuristics and biases. It also shows the significance of supplementing economical-psychological approaches with linguistic-philosophical ones, encouraging further work in this area.

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