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Getting The Message Across:
It's All In How You Say It....

by Peter Salovey, Ph.D.

Research shows that communicating a health and safety message is tricky business. Different types of messages are best delivered in different ways. For instance, the best way to motivate beach-goers to use sunscreen to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the sun is to emphasize the good things that will happen when sunscreen is used.

Psychologist Peter Salovey, Ph.D., of Yale University, along with four other researchers, conducted an American Cancer Society-funded study that demonstrated how people responded differently to sunscreen messages depending on how those messages were framed.

In their study, the researchers passed out brochures to 217 beach-goers at a public beach in southern New England. The brochures contained either a gain-framed or a loss-framed message. A gain-framed message could be phrased "Use sunscreen to help your skin stay healthy" or "Use sunscreen to decrease your risk of getting skin cancer." Loss-framed messages could be phrased "Without sunscreen you increase your risk of developing skin cancer" or "Without sunscreen you cannot guarantee the health of your skin." The participants, aged 18 to 79, filled out questionnaires that came with the brochure in exchange for a free state lottery ticket. Those that returned their questionnaires were given a coupon for a free sample of SPF 15 sunscreen.

The researchers found that those beach-goers that received the gain-framed messages were more likely to redeem their coupons for the sunscreen.

Seventy-one percent of those that received the gain-framed message redeemed their coupon, whereas only 53% of those that received the loss-framed messages did so. Although the information presented in the messages was factually equivalent, the willingness to incur risk changed depending on how the message was framed. The study authors suggest that long term behavioral data needs to be collected to measure the impact of gain-framed messages over time. "Although the gain-framed messages may have had an impact on individuals' intentions and behaviors on the day that they participated in our study, we do not know how long-lasting these intentions may have been."

The findings of this study can be applied to other prevention behaviors like cigarette smoking cessation and condom use. "Generally, gain-framing works best for prevention behaviors, such as sunscreen, but loss-framing works best for detection behaviors, such as mammography," said Dr. Salovey.

Applications for how parents and teachers can best talk to children, teens and young adults about health and safety issues is most certainly of interest to the average person. Research in these areas is welcomed.


"Message Framing and Sunscreen Use: Gain-Framed Messages Motivate Beach-Goers," by Jerusha B. Detweiler, PhD., Brian T. Bedell, PhD., and Peter Salovey, PhD., Yale University, Emily Pronin, PhD., Standord University, and Alexander J. Rothman, PhD., University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus, Health Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 2.

This information received from the American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC.

Originally published 04/04/99
Revised 10/06/08 by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.
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