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J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2016 Feb;42(2):238-56. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000158. Epub 2015 Sep 7.

Framing effects are robust to linguistic disambiguation: A critical test of contemporary theory.

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Department of Human Development, Human Neuroscience Institute, Cornell University.
Department of Human Development, Cornell University.


Theoretical accounts of risky choice framing effects assume that decision makers interpret framing options as extensionally equivalent, such that if 600 lives are at stake, saving 200 implies that 400 die. However, many scholars have argued that framing effects are caused, instead, by filling in pragmatically implied information. This linguistic ambiguity hypothesis is grounded in neo-Gricean pragmatics, information leakage, and schema theory. In 2 experiments, we conducted critical tests of the linguistic ambiguity hypothesis and its relation to framing. We controlled for this crucial implied information by disambiguating it using instructions and detailed examples, followed by multiple quizzes. After disambiguating missing information, we presented standard framing problems plus truncated versions, varying types of missing information. Truncations were also critical tests of prospect theory and fuzzy trace theory. Participants were not only college students, but also middle-age adults (who showed similar results). Contrary to the ambiguity hypothesis, participants who interpreted missing information as complementary to stated information nonetheless showed robust framing effects. Although adding words like "at least" can change interpretations of framing information, this form of linguistic ambiguity is not necessary to observe risky choice framing effects.

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