Health professionals constantly grapple with how they should frame a health discussion or specific health messages, so that they really resonate with a patient. Sometimes the health stakes can be quite high. If a patient is on their way to developing frank obesity, serious heart disease, diabetes, or is engaged in a habit like heavy smoking that is linked to a very high risk of lung cancer, you may be talking about life or death. So do you choose positive messages like, "You will feel so much better if you are able to drop some weight," or "You will have so much more energy if you start exercising," or "You will feel so much more in control of your diabetes if you’re able to embrace some new eating habits," or do you try to convey the serious and dire consequences of a patient’s current lifestyle and the urgency for change, like:
If you don’t commit to losing weight now, you are putting yourself at risk of some grave health consequences.
If you don’t begin a diet and exercise program immediately, you are walking down the path of death.
If you don’t quit smoking you’re going to probably have lung cancer or emphysema in the next few years.
Certainly, recent media campaigns have chosen to use very ominous messages like "drink, drive, and die." But is this the right approach to inspiring change? Most health practitioners will probably take the patient’s personality, current state of health, and other variables into consideration and try to convey "dire and empathy" at the same time. According to a new analysis, experts may prefer negative health appeals to invoke changes, but the general public seems to prefer positive influences.
The analysis looked at 63 health message campaigns, positive or gain versus negative or loss-based comments, and they used four specific assessments that would help to drive the "better choice" in terms of message tone:
How engaged is the target audience in the discussion or topic?
It seems that the more they know on the subject already, the more likely a negative message or "here’s how you lose" message may inspire change. Less involved consumers may ignore negative messaging, and tend to have more of a denial attitude. They specifically might benefit from being told to drink more water for general health, rather than being told to stop drinking soda because it will put you at risk of diabetes or obesity.
Is this an audience who values and pays attention to details?
The professionals who typically design messaging campaigns are usually very detail oriented. So they will gravitate to delivering a negative message, inspired by their deep understanding and their wealth of information on the topic. The public, on the other hand, may not be as educated nor interested in specific details. So grabbing their attention with a more superficial and positive approach may be a better choice.
Is the target audience likely to respond poorly to negative messages, meaning, are they risk-averse?
If you know for a fact that a single choice has been proven to be beneficial, then that may be the better message. For example, telling parents their kids will perform better at school if they have a healthier diet filled with fruits and vegetables may be more likely to invoke change, rather than telling them, your child will get fat if you continue to feed them loads of processed, high sugar foods. Even if a negative suggestion is the chosen message, framing them more generally may help. For example, if you continue to gain weight, you may shorten your life.
Is the message based on facts or simply conjecture?
If the message is factual, then positive may work better. We know that removing soda and sweetened drinks from our diet will reduce the risk of diabetes and help individuals to shed weight. So "lose the soda, lose the weight," may be a good choice. If the person or group receiving the message is in doubt, with regards to the actual facts, than a more negative or serious tone might work. For example, "Drinking soda as a daily habit is a big risk factor for diabetes."
The overall results from this analysis suggest that the experts constructing health messaging may from their perspective believe strong, negative messages will inspire change, because that’s what would intuitively inspire t_hem_ to listen and change. Experts need to realize that in fact, the message would more likely inspire greater interest or change, if it was more informational and positive. Invoking fear, though direct, may not get the job done.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”