The findings from Brian Wansink’s team at Cornell University casts a dim light on public health messages and dietary advice that use fear to convince us to eat better – warning that they do not work for the majority of people. Instead, the team suggest that people respond much better to positive messaging on what should be eaten.
The team analysed 43 published international studies that involved either negative or positive nutrition messages. They found that while negative messages tended to work best with experts – like dietitians and physicians –who were highly involved and knowledgeable in the area, most people who did not know a lot about nutrition would rather be told what they should eat and why it is good for them.
“Because most people are not highly involved in health behaviours, gain-framed messages are likely to be the most successful type for encouraging adherence and compliance,” wrote the researchers, led by Wansink. “Since most audiences do not have the highly specific and detailed health knowledge that the message producers possess, they are less susceptible to fear-based, loss-framed messaging than the producers.”
“In order to achieve compliance with health- and nutrition-related messages, it is crucial to focus on the important differences between message producers and message audiences and to take those differences into account when deciding when to use gain-framed versus loss-framed messages,” they added.
According to Wansink and his colleagues, public health messages should focus more on the intended audience, and not the message producers. In doing so the messages “can be crafted to elicit greater audience responsiveness and compliance.”
“Amidst a tangled web of hypotheses and experiments that span more than 35 years, the present review posits that the common, untangled thread is the level of audience involvement and interest in a health issue,” they said.
Indeed, they argue that a focus on audience-centred messaging could be particularly useful in the health information and advertising culture that currently exists.
They warn that commonly used negative, loss-framed messages such as ‘smoking kills you’ not only cause a negative effect, they also are ineffective at decreasing the behaviour they are seeking to curb.
“This is a lose-lose situation. Unless such messages are directed towards specialised audiences with detailed knowledge of the subject, these loss-framed messages will leave audiences with a negative attitude and an unstable feeling,” said the team.
“Positive, gain-framed messaging does the opposite. It creates an actionable message that is effective with a general audience of people who are likely to have limited knowledge of the message’s topic.”
Source: Nutrition Reviews
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuu010
“When do gain-framed health messages work better than fear appeals?”
Authors: Brian Wansink , Lizzy Pope