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Effective Health Messages

August 2007 - A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology investigated which health messages a person might pay attention to from the plethora available via numerous media and the possible reasons for that choice.

Researchers explain that previous studies have demonstrated that health messages are more effective if matched to the recipient's significant characteristics, a concept known as the "congruency effect". For example, messages highlighting risks in not engaging in a health behavior are more effective in promoting change in avoidance-oriented people who tend to avoid negative outcomes.

Messages that stress the benefits of engaging in a particular health behavior prove more effective for approach-oriented people motivated by the prospect of positive outcomes.

John Updegraff, assistant professor of psychology at Kent State University, together with David Sherman, assistant professor of psychology at University of California, and Traci L. Mann, associate professor of psychology at University of Minnesota, examined the effect of health messages regarding the importance of regular dental flossing on recipients' attitude or behavior. Participants received messages either emphasizing potential benefits (gain-framed) or potential dangers (loss-framed). Both strong and weak versions of each were used.

John Updegraff said:

"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."

Strong messages created more favorable attitudes than weak ones and were more effective in changing behavior. Tailoring the message seemed to have little effect when the content was relatively weak or contained anecdotal evidence.

John Updegraff commented:

"That tells us when someone reads a message that is congruent with his disposition he's really paying attention to it. It changes the way people process health messages. These findings can help health practitioners improve their communications with patients."

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