Gain-versus-loss framing of corona measures and the effects on the public’s policy preferences

Published on November 8, 2021 – How the consequences of corona policies are framed influences whether people prefer risk- seeking or risk-averse measures. More specifically, emphasizing potential gains if policy measures are installed (staying healthy, available healthcare) or potential losses of the same measures (people dying or getting long-covid, overcrowded ICU) can have a major effect on which corona measures are preferred by the public.

Communication is key to how much the public is inclined to follow government measures regarding the coronavirus. In a large experiment at the beginning of the corona pandemic (April 2020), ASCoR-researchers Mark Boukes and Michael Hameleers of the University of Amsterdam examined how strongly the gain-versus-loss framing of government policy consequences can influence the public’s preference for either risk-averse or risk-seeking interventions.

Gain frames emphasize potential gains. In the context of corona interventions, those mentioned in the study were (a) saving people and (b) securing economic capacity. Loss frames, in contrast, focus on losses. In this study’s case, this meant (a) patients dying or (b) a collapse of the economy.

Our research replicates the findings of cornerstone research by Tversky and Kahneman on “Prospect Theory”. People preferred to choose risk-averse solutions when a gain frame was used. While risk-seeking interventions were preferred if a loss frame was used. The psychological explanation is that when people are faced with losses, they prefer to take a risk to avoid these losses. In contrast, risks are avoided when the existing gains are emphasized.

The full article is available open-access here.

A more extensive (Dutch) summary can be found here.