Say you’re the government and you want to stop people smoking. Should you put really scary warnings on the packets emphasising the health risks?
Or maybe you should tell people about the positive side of becoming a non-smoker, like having whiter teeth, smelling better and being able to run more than 20 metres without having a coughing fit.
Our instinctive reaction is to go with scaring people witless. Throw away the carrots and start wielding the big stick. The theory being that people pay more attention to frightening messages, so they are more likely to take them to heart.
As you’ll have noticed, most government agencies agree. Billions are spent each year in countries across the world on campaigns that focus on the negative. This is the way persuasive health messages are normally targeted at the public. We, the downtrodden masses, must be frightened into changing our foolish ways.
But what does the research say?
Originally it agreed that framing messages in terms of losses tends to get people’s attention, but research has begun to question this ‘common sense’ conclusion.
A recent analysis added up the results of 29 different studies, which had been carried out on 6,378 people in total (O’Keefe & Jensen, 2008). They didn’t just include health messages like smoking cessation, but also consumer advertising.
What they found was none of the expected advantage for loss-framed messages, indeed there was a slight persuasive advantage for messages that were framed positively. But this advantage for gain-framed appeals seemed to be mainly confined to disease prevention, such as encouraging people to use sunscreen. However another review of the field also found an advantage for gain-framed appeals in encouraging healthy eating (O’Keefe & Jensen, in press).
All of these findings are weird because normally bad things attract our attention more than good things and so they are processed more thoroughly. That’s why the newspapers and TV are full of alarming stories: like it or not, that’s what we pay attention to.
We don’t really know why loss-framed appeals turn out to be no more effective, and in some cases worse, than gain-framed appeals. O’Keefe and Jensen suggest it might be because we don’t like to be bullied by the government—or by anyone for that matter—into changing our behaviour.
Could be true but I prefer their second explanation which is simply that we prefer to think about nice things. Given the choice between visualising lung cancer and contemplating a dazzling white smile, I know which one I prefer to think about. And if I spend more time thinking about it, then it’s got a better chance of persuading me than if I put it straight out of my mind.
Image credit: Luca