Framing Decisions As Gains Or Losses: The Case Of Yucca Mountain

On Sunday, March 4, 2012 the Reno Gazette Journal reported results of the following online poll: Should Nevada stick to its opposition to using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste facility?  Eighty percent of respondents reported no and 20% yes.  The poll was accompanied by opinion articles for and against Yucca Mountain being developed as a temporary storage facility and research facility.  Writing against Yucca Mountain, Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto states:

The reason for Nevada’s long-standing opposition to the Yucca project is that it poses grave risks to public health and the environment. While Nevadans’ initial opposition may have rested on the perceived unfairness of being singled out for a facility no one else wanted, the state has since constructed a well-substantiated, scientific case against the project which is, according to the Obama administration, “unworkable.” Simply put, Yucca Mountain cannot physically isolate waste from the human and natural environment.

Writing for Yucca Mountain, Tyrus W. Cobb states:

For Nevada, the benefits of hosting the spent fuel temporarily could be enormous. First, the direct economic impact is far greater than any other project that Brookings or state economic development officials envision. Indeed, closing Yucca has already resulted in the loss of more than 2,500 of the best paying and highly technical jobs imaginable — positions that would be immediately restored. Remember that $17 billion had already been expended to develop the repository, but that funding has been cut off, thanks to the adamancy of our elected officials.

What I found interesting about this debate was the results of the poll: 80% responded that Nevada should not continue its’ opposition to Yucca Mountain.  This result is in contrast with most prior public opinion polls that show most Nevadans are opposed to Yucca Mountain, and this public sentiment has likely contributed to almost all politicians in Nevada being opposed to Yucca Mountain.  Why the change in public opinion (in this admittedly unscientific poll)?

Two concepts I teach in my class on decision making may help explain the results.  The first concept considers the framing of a decision. Consider three possible frames for how a public opinion question on Yucca Mountain might be asked:

  1. Do you support the use of Yucca Mountain a permanent depository of nuclear waste?
  2. Should Nevada stick to its opposition to using Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility or use the site as a research center and negotiate for benefits?
  3. Do you support Nevada negotiating with the federal government to host a temporary nuclear storage facility and research facility?

If the poll was framed as in #1 above, I would suggest most Nevadan’s would say no, they do not support the use of Yucca Mountain as permanent nuclear storage facility.  If the poll was framed as in #2 above, as it apparently was by the Reno Gazette Journal, then apparently 80% of respondents do not think Nevada should stick to its opposition of Yucca Mountain.  If the poll was framed as in #3 above, then I am not sure what the results would be.

What accounts for the differing results depending upon the frame?  Psychological research suggests that framing decisions as gains or losses significantly affects our choice.  For example, many people would not choose to not undergo a medical procedure where immediately after the procedure 10% of patients died and 60% were dead after five years.  On the other hand many people would choose to undergo a medical procedure where 90% were alive immediately after the procedure and 40% were alive after five years.  Notice that the statistical information describing the medical procedure is identical in both choices (i.e. 10% dead =90% alive, and 60% dead = 40% alive), but more people would choose the procedure when the data is presented the probability of living (gain) rather than the probability of dying (loss).

Looking at the three Yucca Mountain poll questions posed above within the lens of gains and losses, Nevada respondents would likely consider the hosting of a research facility to be a gain and the storage of nuclear waste to be a loss.  Thus #1 is primarily a loss (permanent depository of nuclear waste) and will be opposed, #2 is a small gain (as a research center and negotiate for benefits) and supported, and #3 as a gain and loss (host a temporary nuclear storage facility and research facility) making the decision more difficult.  I have to wonder whether Nevadans’ have actually changed their opinions regarding Yucca Mountain or whether the frame of the question changed the results.

As we move into the political election cycle and the airwaves are saturated with candidate advertisements, try and pay attention to how the marketing messages are framed.  While we might hope for positive issue ads to dominate, the reality is the negative attack ads are more effective and will likely drive candidate spending.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

James A. Sundali, Ph.D.

James A. Sundali, Ph.D.James Sundali is associate professor of strategic management. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and his MBA and bachelor’s degree in economics from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He has been at the University of Nevada, Reno since 1997 and has taught strategic management, corporate finance, game theory, bargaining and negotiation, individual choice behavior, organizations and the natural environment, the psychology of gaming, and managerial and leadership insights from film and literature.

About Bret Simmons

Nevada Management Professor

Posted on March 6, 2012, in management and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Your line above states: “I have to wonder whether Nevadans’ have actually changed their opinions regarding Yucca Mountain or whether the frame of the question changed the results.”

    I hate to say it, but check your premise. In poll after poll Nevadans have actually expressed support for Yucca. I can send the polls to you if you want. But the politicians and the media have told us that we oppose it because that is their agenda. Watch next for a scientific poll next week that will show this. And hopefully you’ll like how that question was framed! But great discussion. I loved this!

  2. Randi – It has been awhile. Thanks for your comment and I look forward to seeing the results of the new poll and how the question was framed. Admittedly my premise was based upon my general recollection of the sentiment of Nevada citizens. I also relied on a quick internet search to confirm my general notion and found the following sources that support the opinion that generally Nevadans opoose Yucca Mountain:

    The good thing about being an academic is that if the data cannot support my opinion then I will change my opinion so I look forward to the new poll and hope that the question was framed as neutral as possible.

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