The Psychology Behind Health Messaging

James Kay

September 13, 2022

With so many medical and social studies conducted on human health, we already know what we should be doing to maximise our healthspan and our overall longevity. However, we all also know that most of us are pretty bad about putting this advice into practice. A significant amount of research has come to the overwhelming conclusion that us human beings do not always act in a way that benefits our best, more long-term interests.

Simply, humans are not wholly rational agents… and, arguably, it’s what makes us human! So, academia has now moved past simply reporting on what the best choices for us are- and instead is now focusing on how best to promote these findings to a public that is fatigued of such health warnings. In this blog post we’ll be examining some of the psychology behind health messaging and providing you with some actionable tools on how to make your own healthier choices.

The Psychology Behind Health Messaging

Before we can examine the psychology of health messaging in general, we first need to explore what ‘loss-based’ and ‘gain-based’ messaging is. This terminology has been noted upon by Brian Wansink and Lizzy Pope, two Cornell and Vermont University researchers that have studied the nuances of official public health communications.

Loss-based messaging is the medium by which the public are informed that they are harming themselves in the long-run by not meeting the recommendations of health studies (such as quitting smoking or drinking less). In the past, public health messaging has focused around loss-based messaging- the print of ‘Smoking Harms You And Those Around You’ on cigarette packets is one such example.

On the other hand, gain-based messaging is the packaging of the act of making healthier choices into a value-add proposition to someone’s life. For example, instead of scaring an individual into quitting smoking through negativity, a gain-based message could state something along the lines of ‘For every pack of cigarettes you don’t smoke, you will live a few days longer’. The efficacy of this route has, in part, been illustrated over recent years through the proliferation of vaping as opposed to smoking. Vaping does still carry significantly negative health implications- but it has been marketed to the population of the UK as being ‘95% better for you than smoking’ (a claim backed by the National Health Service).

Wansink and Pope, in their study, have remarked that public health officials and experts prefer loss-based health messages- while a majority of the public responds markedly better to gain-based messages. This ties into basic human psychology. A study into the American education system found that students who felt threatened by the messages perpetuated by their teachers around failing were more likely to fail than students whose teachers did not believe in such scare tactics. Simply, if we tell someone who is already struggling (be this to do with weight, schooling or almost anything else) that they are failing then they will be considerably more likely to continue failing. [1]

A Little Nudge

As a result of the research mentioned above, some countries and companies have begun efforts to ‘nudge’ citizens in a healthier direction. The aim of this is to enable but educate citizens to make informed choices, the benefits of which are highlighted over the negatives of their current behaviour. These nudge efforts can also incentivise the public through a variety of means that stretch far beyond promising health further down the line.

The aim of nudging the public to make healthier choices is centered around the idea that we all already know what to do- we simply don’t do it.

This can be because we’re demotivated because of loss-based messaging or because we just don’t feel like making the healthy choice at that time. The latter is fine, but the former needs to be addressed. Because of this, a key tenet of ‘nudging’ citizens to make a healthier choice is based around ‘enabling but educating’ and presenting choices wrapped in gain-based messaging. This allows people the freedom to make their own choices about choices that may affect their health but also empowers them to make an informed decision, free of psychological stress.

As more and more governments begin to realise that scare-tactics do not work- we’ll be more likely to see health initiatives that reward/cajole rather than scold the public. Further, by applying gain-based psychology to our own choices, we can nudge ourselves toward healthier habits too.

Two Tools to Help Make Healthier Choices

The commonly cited, health official approved, four steps to living healthily are (generally);

  • Not smoking.
  • Drinking less aclohol, well within medically recommended limits.
  • Being physically active for at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Eating decent portions (5 servings) of fruit and vegetables a day.

Now, most of the population will probably struggle to meet the above, let alone exceed it (where applicable). However, as mentioned above, we can strive to meet and exceed these healthy goals through a combination of switching our perspective and putting together a plan to meet them.

Through switching our perspective, we can move to a gain-based lifestyle which will provide us with a more positive relationship with our health and improving it. Look at each health recommendation and, if you aren’t meeting it, instead of feeling bad about the potential adverse effects on your health and you not meeting these goals, instead visualise that each positive health decision you make will enable you to live a longer life with a longer period free of any major health conditions.

When you couple this with a long-term plan to build healthy habits into your life- by layering each new routine or habit over a protracted period- you’ll be much more likely to enjoy the benefits of healthy living and stick with them. I’m sure we’ve all been inspired to get healthy at various times in our lives… and I’m sure we’ve all took on too much at once and suffered some whiplash at how hard all of these new routines are to maintain and eventually abandoned the entire idea. Instead, take a more measured approach, look at your choices in a more positive light and celebrate your progress.

In Closing

In the near future we’ll see smarter campaigns based around public health- campaigns that don’t try to shame or scare us into making healthier choices. However, the academic research into the psychology of making healthy choices hasn’t yet filtered into public policy. Instead, in the interim, we can use the psychology of ‘gain-based’ messaging ourselves to affect our own behaviour in the day to day. By striving toward a more positive relationship with our health and making healthy choices we can make progress toward our health and longevity goals without seeing these decisions in a negative light or ignoring them entirely. This, combined with careful and deliberate strategizing how we can gradually build good habits into our daily lives will ensure that we don’t start a health kick and then gradually kick it away.

NOMIX will soon announce some exciting news that will definitely help keep you on top of your health goals- and allow you to act with longevity in mind.

Make sure to watch this space! To be one of the first to hear, make sure to check this blog and follow NOMIX on Twitter, LinkedIn and Telegram.

[1] Kang, O’Donnell, Strecher, Falk. Dispositional Mindfullness Predicts Adaptive Affective Responses to Health Messages and Increased Exercise Motivation, 2016.