The COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged social scientists around the globe to consider how we can best shape human behavior to reduce the more dire outcomes of this virus. What messages can we send to the public to effectively get them to practice social distancing and keep themselves from spreading the coronavirus?

This is not a new question. Decades of research in health communication has tested the strategies that most effectively convey health information and get people to practice health-promoting behaviors. Just think of the importance of getting people to quit smoking, get vaccinated, go in for cancer screenings, eat healthy foods, and exercise. Are there some communication strategies that work better than others?

Focusing on Gains versus Losses

One set of communication strategies that has received lots of attention is the difference between gain frame and loss frames. This is about whether it’s better to emphasize the good things that will come if you practice a particular behavior or to emphasize the bad things that will come if you don’t practice that behavior?

Consider how we might encourage people to practice social distancing:

Gain Frame: “If you stand 6 feet apart from people, you can help stop the spread of coronavirus!”

Loss Frame: “If you don’t stand 6 feet apart from people, you could more easily spread coronavirus!”

Or consider how we could encourage people to stop smoking:

Gain Frame: “If you quit smoking now, you’ll enjoy the benefits of a longer, healthier life.”

Loss Frame: “If you keep smoking, you increase your chances of developing lung cancer.”

Which One’s Better?

Well, this is the tricky question that’s motivated this whole research enterprise. When it comes to behaviors that are meant to help prevent poor health, lots of studies tend to find that gain frames are more effective than loss frames. So, if you want to encourage people to get vaccinated to prevent them from getting sick, focusing on the benefits of getting vaccinated would be more effective than focusing on the dangers of not getting vaccinated.

To make this more concrete, consider a study that tried to encourage people to quit smoking. They designed two types of treatment. One emphasized the benefits of quitting (“You take control of your health. You save your money. You look healthy. You feel healthy.”) and the other emphasized the dangers of continuing to smoke (“You are not taking control of your health. You waste your money. You look unhealthy. You feel unhealthy.”)

Among people who completed the training, those who got the gain-framed messages were more likely to report continuous abstinence from smoking and also took longer to relapse if they did so.

It Depends

Even though the evidence seems to show that gain-framed messages help encourage behaviors that prevent poor health, this doesn’t mean that gain frames are always better than loss frames.

First, what about behaviors that are focused on detecting health issues (e.g., getting screened for a certain type of cancer)? In this case, it seems that one frame isn’t necessarily more compelling than the other (although early research predicted that loss frames would be more compelling).

Second, the real difference between “prevention” and “detection” behaviors reflects the level of risk posed by a behavior. But even prevention and detection behaviors can vary in their perceived risk. In this case, when people perceive higher risk, loss-framed messages tend to be more persuasive, and when people perceive lower risk, gain-framed messages tend to be more persuasive. For example, one study took the same prevention behavior—getting a vaccine for West Nile virus—and either led people to perceive it as high risk (only 60% effective) or low risk (90% effective). When the vaccine seemed risky, a loss-framed message made people more interested in getting the vaccine, but when the vaccine seemed low-risk, the gain-framed message made people more interested in getting it.

Finally, gain-framed messages might be especially compelling for certain people. That is, some people naturally focus on the positives and are eager to pursue promising opportunities. These are people who tend to be moved by gain-framed messages. But there are also people who instead naturally focus on negatives, and are careful to avoid potential dangers. These are people who tend to be moved by loss-framed messages.

No One Frame Rules Them All

In summary, health communication is complicated. But you probably figured that might be the case…

By and large, it’s hard to find a “one-size-fits-all” approach to encouraging everyone to adopt healthier behaviors. But if we recognize the ways in which we can frame a health message, we can ask questions about how the success of using one type of message over the other depends on the type of behavior, qualities of that behavior, and the person we’re trying to get through to.

In the end, getting the world to take COVID-19 seriously and act in ways that prevent its spread is no easy task, but if we think closely about what behavior we want people to adopt, we can try to savvy in tailoring our messages to the audiences we need to reach.

This article was first written for Psychology Today.

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