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“Don’t” Messages Don’t Work

No_smoking_symbol.svgDon’t smoke. Don’t eat sweets. Don’t drink too much. “Don’t” statements like these offer advice in a simple, succinct way. But does telling people what NOT to do actually support them in making better choices?

A recent Cornell study examined public health messages, positive and negative, and found that fear-based “don’t” messages work for experts, like physicians and dietitians, but not for the rest of the population. Most people respond more to positive messages that highlight healthy behaviors and explain why they are beneficial.

Imagine you want to encourage people to improve their diets. You might say, “Eating vegetables will give you more energy.” This message promotes a specific action step and explains how taking it could generate desirable results. On the other hand, a negative message, such as “Stay away from pizza, candy, and soda”, fails to offer direction or motivation.

When we understand the positive consequences of a healthy behavior, we adopt a more expansive mindset towards the behavior. Engaging in the behavior appears more attainable, rewarding and exciting. Therefore, instead of steering people away from unhealthy behaviors, we should guide them toward healthy behaviors by putting a positive twist on our health messages.

To compose a positive message, emphasize these three elements about the behavior you want to promote:

1. Attainable

Suggest a behavior that is within reach for your audience. For example, “eat one vegetable today” might sound more attainable than “eat organic, in season, local vegetables at every meal.”

2. Rewarding

The “what’s in it for me?” mentality is the gatekeeper of most decisions. Identify the reward that is valuable for that specific individual or group of people. For example, “eat more vegetables for energy” will appeal to adults who are feeling a lack of energy.

3. Exciting

The element of excitement in behavior change is like grease to the gears. Identify what excites this individual or group and incorporate that in your message. Excitement is what really motivates people to take action.

If you are a health educator or coach, use these guidelines to promote behaviors in a positive way and inspire your audience to change.

Image: Commons Wikimedia

Laura Coulton, MCHES, Manager, Navigator

Laura Coulton, MCHES, Manager, Navigator

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