Psychology Can Make the Country Healthier

Posted on June 20, 2014

Public health communications are designed to tackle significant medical issues such as obesity, AIDS, and cancer. For example, what message can best combat the growing obesity epidemic? Are educational messages effective at increasing condom use? Should cancer prevention messages stress the health risks of too much sun exposure?

These are not just medical problems. These are fundamentally questions about perception, beliefs, and behavior. Psychologists bring a unique expertise to these questions and are finding consequential, and often non-intuitive, answers.

Psychological research on the unanticipated effects of public health messages goes beyond the obesity epidemic. For example, critics of behavioral interventions aimed at reducing teen pregnancy and HIV argue that educational messages about condoms encourage adolescent sexual behavior. However, the opposite occurs. The interventions not only reduce the frequency of sex but also decrease the number of sexual partners while also encouraging greater condom use. Another example involves messages designed to promote sunscreen use.

At first glance, it may seem irrelevant whether this message tells people, "using sunscreen decreases your risk of cancer" or whether it says, "not using sunscreen increases your risk of developing cancer." However, this difference is meaningful for motivating healthy behavior: the first message is gain-based and is more effective at encouraging prevention behaviors, such as using sunscreen. The latter message is loss-based framing and is more effective at promoting detection behaviors such as cancer screenings.

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Source material from Scientific American


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