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Ratio Bias and Policy Preferences: How Equivalency Framing of Numbers Can Affect Attitudes

Numbers permeate modern political communication. While current scholarship on framing effects has focused on the persuasive effects of words and arguments, this article shows that framing of numbers can also substantially affect policy preferences. Such effects are caused by ratio bias, which is a general tendency to focus on numerators and pay insufficient attention to denominators in ratios. Using a population-based survey experiment, I demonstrate how differently framed but logically equivalent representations of the exact same numerical value can have large effects on citizens’ preferences regarding salient political issues such as education and taxes. Furthermore, the effects of numerical framing are found across most groups of the population, largely regardless of their political predisposition and their general ability to understand and use numerical information. These findings have significant implications for our understanding of framing effects and the role played by numbers in public opinion formation.