When Good Is Stickier Than Bad: Understanding Gain/Loss Asymmetries in Sequential Framing Effects

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Abstract

Considerable research has demonstrated the power of the current positive or negative frame to shape people’s current judgments. But humans must often learn about positive and negative information as they encounter that information sequentially over time. It is therefore crucial to consider the potential importance of sequencing when developing an understanding of how humans think about valenced information. Indeed, recent work looking at sequentially encountered frames suggests that some frames can linger outside the context in which they are first encountered, sticking in the mind so that subsequent frames have a muted effect. The present research builds a comprehensive account of sequential framing effects in both the loss and the gain domains. After seeing information about a potential gain or loss framed in positive terms or negative terms, participants saw the same issue reframed in the opposing way. Across 5 studies and 1566 participants, we find accumulating evidence for the notion that in the gain domain, positive frames are stickier than negative frames for novel but not familiar scenarios, whereas in the loss domain, negative frames are always stickier than positive frames. Integrating regulatory focus theory with the literatures on negativity dominance and positivity offset, we develop a new and comprehensive account of sequential framing effects that emphasizes the adaptive value of positivity and negativity biases in specific contexts. Our findings highlight the fact that research conducted solely in the loss domain risks painting an incomplete and oversimplified picture of human bias and suggest new directions for future research.

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