Each day, people are bombarded with hundreds of messages, whether it’s through television, e-mail, the Internet or radio. So how does a person choose which messages to pay attention to and why?
With messages relating to health, prior research has demonstrated that the message is more effective if matched to important characteristics of the recipient, an idea known by psychologists as the congruency effect. For example, loss-framed messages, which highlight the risks in not engaging in a health behavior, are more effective in promoting health behavior change for avoidance-oriented people, or those who avoid negative outcomes. Conversely, gain-framed messages, which communicate the benefits of engaging in a particular health behavior, are more effective for approach-oriented people, or those who are motivated by positive outcomes.
In a newly published Journal of Experimental Social Psychology article, Dr. John Updegraff, assistant professor of psychology at Kent State University, and colleagues, Dr. David Sherman, assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara, and Dr. Traci L. Mann, associate professor of psychology at University of Minnesota, examined whether the strength of health messages regarding the importance of dental flossing had any effect on the recipient’s attitude or behavior.
Specifically, recipients received messages that either emphasized the potential benefits of regular flossing (gain-framed) or messages that reviewed the potential dangers of not flossing (loss-framed). Both strong and weak versions of each message type were used.
“When we varied how convincing the messages were, we found that only those who received messages matching their motivational orientation were paying enough attention to notice the difference between strong and weak messages,” says Updegraff. Particularly, strong messages created more favorable attitudes towards flossing than weak messages, and were more effective in changing behavior. When messages were relatively weak or contained anecdotal evidence, tailoring the message seemed to have little effect.
“That tells us when someone reads a message that is congruent with his disposition, he’s really paying attention to it,” says Updegraff. “It changes the way people process health messages These findings can help health practitioners improve their communications with patients.”
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