Negative framing in public health communications causes worry, not improved outcomes.

What is the most successful way to convey a public health message: using positive language to emphasise the benefits of a particular activity, or a negative framing that may frighten individuals who disregard these precautions?

A vast research project examined the responses of nearly 16,000 individuals from around the world to contradictory COVID-19 health messages; some messages emphasised the potential benefits of taking precautions such as wearing a mask, while others emphasised the potential losses that could result from failing to take such precautions.

The study indicated that positive or negative marketing had no effect on people’s attitudes or actions about those options. However, the negatively worded advertisements did increase people’s worry, which has been related to conditions such as high blood pressure and increased mortality.

The experimental research project, directed by behavioural scientists at Harvard University in collaboration with the Psychological Science Accelerator, a globally distributed network of psychology labs, surveyed participants from 84 countries in 48 languages to ensure a global sample and identify any regional differences. During the early stages of the pandemic in the spring and summer of 2020, the data was collected.

The survey questions were based on World Health Organization advice urging individuals to stay home as much as possible, avoid public places, cover their faces, and isolate themselves if exposed to the virus. The survey questions were modified to emphasise either the benefits or drawbacks of these activities. Positive framing included, “There is so much to gain: if you follow these four actions, you can safeguard yourself and others.” You can endanger yourself and others if you do not follow these four procedures.

The study, which was published on September 26 in the journal Affective Science, was the largest of its type to examine whether the framing of COVID-19 public health messaging can have significant effects on attitudes, intentions, and feelings. Behavioral decision researchers have studied the impact of message framing for decades, frequently in the context of commercial items. And they have increasingly focused their research on discovering the effects of various messages on crucial matters regarding public health and other policy concerns.

In total, the research paper acknowledges the contributions of 405 universities and research institutions from around the world.


Journal Reference

Charles A. Dorison et al, In COVID-19 Health Messaging, Loss Framing Increases Anxiety with Little-to-No Concomitant Benefits: Experimental Evidence from 84 Countries, Affective Science (2022). DOI: 10.1007/s42761-022-00128-3

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