Date Published: 29 January 2015

Is health advice most likely to be heeded when framed positively, or negatively ?

Health News from the United States of America (USA)

More news from Cornell University (USA).

Is it more effective to inform people about the potentially harmful effects of certain health choices, or to focus on the expected health benefits of making alternative decisions?

Recent research conducted at Cornell University (New York State) and published in the academic journal Nutrition Reviews suggests that the answer to whether or not health advice should be framed positively of negatively in order to increase the probability of the message being received, understood and - if appropriate, acted on, is that it depends on who the message is intended for.

The research paper 'When do gain-framed health messages work better than fear appeals?' indicates that the most effective form of communication might vary depending on certain characteristics of the target audience.

" Those who are highly involved in the field that a message relates to are more influenced by negative loss-framed messages," said co-author Lizzy Pope, associate professor and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at the University of Vermont.

" For example, a medical doctor would be more influenced by, 'if you don't use sunscreen you are more likely to get skin cancer' because they have the knowledge base to process the message and feel a duty to maintain a healthy lifestyle."

Conversely, the same research also indicates that positively phrased statements are more effective for members of the general public who have less knowledge about the subject, feel that healthy behaviors are a choice rather than a duty, and have less first-hand knowledge of the consequences of their actions. The researchers deem that group to be more likely to take a wider view of the advice in the context of their lifestyle and other influences and to respond to messages that are framed more positively and focus on what is gained by a certain behavior such as, "wearing sunscreen can help your skin stay healthy and youthful."

When presenting information to the general public, it seems that focussing on positive outcomes really is the most effective way to affect mass behaviour.

" Evoking fear may seem like a good way to get your message across but this study shows that, in fact, the opposite is true ? telling the public that a behavior will help them be healthier and happier is actually more effective," said Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and lead author of the recent report.

Some of the expressions used to describe different ways to present messages such as health advice include: audience-centered messaging, gain-framed messages and loss-framed messages. According to the authors of this study, "message framing is one of the most researched, yet least conclusively understood, phenomena in health communication". This research highlights the benefits of being aware of how information is communicated and making informed choices to improve the effectiveness of the communication opportunity.

Source: Cornell University, New York State, USA

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