In the August 4, 2006 issue of Science, research discuss a study describing how framing a question can effect how people decide to act. In this study, researchers told participants they would receive a sum of money and then the researchers repeatedly posed them one of two choices. Either the volunteers were told they could keep a chunk of money or gamble, or informed they could lose some fraction or gamble. Those told they could keep money or gamble were generally leerier of risk. On the other hand, volunteers informed they could lose money or gamble often were more risk-seeking.
Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work on this topic. Here is a quote from him on this topic:
“You have two people, both of whom get their quarterly returns on their stock portfolios. One of them learns his wealth has gone from $1 million to $1.2 million, and the other one learns his wealth has gone down from $4 million to $3.5 million. I can ask you two questions. I can ask you who is happier. There is no question the first one is happier than the second. Then I can ask you who is better off financially. The second one is better off. Bernoulli’s analysis was in terms of who is better off financially–basically in terms of wealth. But when people think of the outcomes of their decisions, they think much more short term than that. They think in terms of gains and losses. …It turns out it affects their decision-making in very major ways. If you think in terms of major losses, because losses loom much larger than gains–that’s a very well-established finding–you tend to be very risk-averse. When you think in terms of wealth, you tend to be much less risk-averse. I’ll give you an example: Suppose someone offered you a gamble on the toss of a coin. If you guess right, you win $15,000; if you guess wrong, you lose $10,000. Practically no one wants it. Then I ask people to think of their wealth, and now think of two states of the world. In one you own [your current assets] minus $10,000 and in the other you own [your current assets] plus $15,000. Which state of the world do you like better? Everybody likes the second one. So when you think in terms of wealth–the final state–you tend to be much closer to risk-neutral than when you think of gains and losses. That’s the fundamental way prospect theory departs from utility theory.”