Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Message framing: a tool for more effectively influencing people - issue#1

The effectiveness of messages depends on positive or negative framing

 

by Prof. dr. Arie Dijkstra, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Human behavior is primarily guided by the outcomes of it: people are seeking rewards and avoiding punishments. This is probably the most basic law of human behavior that exists. From a psychological point of view, rewards and punishments only exist in the eye of the beholder. That is, humans actually behave on the basis of expectations they have about the occurrence of punishments or rewards; the outcome expectations. This implies that when we want to change people’s behavior we just have to install specific outcome expectation into their minds.

 For example, in the 1960ies the following factual information was disseminated in Western society: Smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. Although most smokers did not have lung cancer (yet), millions of them quitted smoking based on the outcome expectation: “When I smoke (behavior) I increase my risk of lung cancer (punishment)”. Thus, outcome expectations about impending punishments are powerful behavior changers. However, outcome expectations about rewards may be evenly powerful: “When I quit smoking (behavior) I lower my risk of lung cancer (reward)”. Both formulations are about smoking behavior and lung cancer, but the one stresses the negative aspect while the other stresses the positive aspects; they are differentially framed. One central issue that has been addressed in over 100 scientific studies is when or in whom positively or negatively framed messages are most effective.


An early theoretical position to understand the differential effects of negative and positive framing was that when people hear about negative outcomes, they get in the mood of “nothing to lose”. This makes them more willing to take risks, for example, by letting themselves screen on early signs of illness or risk factors of illness (they might receive bad news). On the other hand, when people hear about positive outcomes they might experience, they get in the mood of “playing it safe”. This makes them more willing to engage in preventive behaviors, like eating more fruit.


A later theoretical position to understand the differential effects of negative and positive framing is that recipients differ in the types of outcomes they prefer. That is, some people are, in general, investing more in preventing negative outcomes; they value safety and certainty. These people are more interested in negatively framed messages because they help them to satisfy their prevention focus. Other people are, in general, investing more in getting positive outcomes; they value challenges and progress. These people are more interested in positively framed messages because they help them to satisfy their promotion focus. Recently is has been suggested that messages with a consistent line of reasoning along these lines are more effective: When the action that is proposed is on investing in new things (so the promotion kind of style), than the arguments should congruently be framed as positive.


To conclude, when we want to influence behavior, we have to target its psychological roots: the outcome expectations. To be most effective, we always must take into account the different possible ways of framing messages about outcomes.