Diets Are More Successful When They Focus on What We Should Do, Not What We Shouldn’t

Do this, not that

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

For the majority of people, scaring them into better habits doesn’t work, researchers found. 

When it’s time to start a diet — for real this time — or call on the general public to heed an important health recommendation, fearmongering does nothing for the majority of people, new research suggests.

That includes diets that focus on what you’re no longer allowed to enjoy, and ads that gravely promise “smoking kills you.” These messages are not only unappealing to most, but also ineffective.

A new study from Cornell University, published in the Nutrition Reviews journal, asks the question, “When do gain-framed health messages work better than fear appeals?”

For starters, the team found that the way you react to positive or negative messages depends on how much you already know about the issue.

Experts in the field, like doctors and fellow researchers, tended to prefer those “loss-framed” warning signals— while the general public, for whom the advice was intended, responded much better to positive “gain-framed” messages about the options available.

“Because most people are not highly involved in health behaviors, gain-framed messages are likely to be the most successful type for encouraging adherence and compliance,” scientists concluded. “Since most audiences do not have the highly specific and detailed health knowledge that the message producers possess, they are less susceptible to fear-based, loss-framed messaging than the producers. In order to achieve compliance with health- and nutrition-related messages, it is crucial to focus on the important differences between message producers and message audiences and to take those differences into account when deciding when to use gain-framed versus loss-framed messages.”

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