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When Do Gain-framed Health Messages Work Better than Fear Appeals?

In previous studies, findings regarding the effectiveness of gain-framed versus loss-based health messages have been inconsistent and inconclusive. While message framing has been very well researched, it remains the least conclusive and poorly understood phenomena in health communication. In this review, we looked to explain this discrepancy  by examining if individual (person-specific) differences in perceptions and processing styles of the target audience could predict whether a positive message or a negative fear appeal would be most effective—a topic that has been largely overlooked.

Health professionals attempt to produce messages that they believe will effectively influence a targeted audience. However, these professionals tend to process information differently than the actual audience of the health-message. In most instances, health professionals are able to understand the messages because of their extensive knowledge of and involvement in various health-related issues. On the other hand, the audience is usually not as involved or well-educated in the issue at hand. By looking at the unique characteristics of individuals within these target audiences, health messaging may become more effective.

From our review, it appears that for audiences that are not highly involved in the health behavior, gain-framed messages (i.e., wearing sunscreen can help your skin stay healthy and youthful) are more likely to be successful in encouraging adherence and compliance. On the other hand, message producers, or those involved in the health behavior tend to respond better to loss-framed messages (If you don’t use sunscreen, you are more likely to get skin cancer). It is crucial to focus on the important differences between those who produce the messages and those in the audiences that these messages are geared towards.

We concluded that by answering the following four questions about a target audience, one can predict whether a gain-framed or loss-based health message will be more effective. These questions were: 1) Is there a low (versus high) level of involvement in the issue? 2) Is there a high (versus low) certainty of the outcome? 3) Is there a low (versus high) preference for risk? 4) Is there a heuristic (versus piecemeal) processing style? However, gain-framed messages will typically be more effective for the general public, while loss-based messages can better appeal to health experts or those who are knowledgeable in the message topic.