Framing Messages to Promote Compliance

Framing Messages to Promote Compliance

6 April 2020 1 By Rhi Willmot

What is it? Information can be conveyed in multiple ways. In particular, the language and framing of content can be the difference between a message which successfully changes the way a person thinks, acts and feels, or one that falls flat. Messages which restrict a person’s sense of control can even drive them in the opposite direction to that intended, known as psychological reactance1.   

‘Message framing’ refers to the context and approach that is used to construct information, whilst ‘message phrasing’ describes the style of wording and grammar. For example, different message frames will focus upon different reasons for acting, including emotional, logical, ethical or motivational factors. ‘Message phrasing’ can be used to communicate with different populations in the most effective way by packaging the same sentiment using different forms of vocabulary and grammar .  

Small modifications to phrasing and frame can have a significant impact on behaviour without changing the content of the message.  

How to use it:  

Avoiding Reactance: Language varies in the extent to which it is controlling. For example, “you could” is significantly less insistent than “you must”. Evidence indicates highly controlling language can lead to reactance and result in prohibited behaviour being more enticing2. The use of non-controlling language – that which conveys a sense of choice and autonomy – reduces the likelihood of reactance occurring3. However, with choice comes consequences and so it is also important to acknowledge this in an autonomous message (see next). 

Gain vs. Loss: Gain-framed messages focus on benefits (“you will live longer if you quit smoking”), whilst loss-frames emphasise costs (“you will die sooner if you do not quit smoking”). Typically, we seek to avoid loss rather than achieve gain, but loss-framed messages lose their impact when we are experiencing strong emotions. So don’t try to panic people with loss-framed messages. This effect is particularly strong for younger populations4. Furthermore,  the most recent evidence indicates gain-framed messages work well when outcomes are clear and certain5. For example, scientifically proven or well-established concepts such as the role of hand-washing in reducing Covid-19 spread will benefit from gain-framed messaging e.g. “washing your hands will save lives.”

Personalisation: It is important to identify which form of message will resonate most strongly with a target group. For example, by considering the values of the target group, you could use one or more of the following message frames: Social (“everyone else is washing their hands”), Logical (“I read that washing your hands stops coronavirus spreading”), Emotional (“if we do not wash our hands, the disease will spread and people will die”) and Ethical (“we have a moral obligation to protect vulnerable populations”). Matching the content of the message to the motives of the target audience can be critical5


  1. Miller, C. H., Lane, L. T., Deatrick, L. M., Young, A. M. & Potts, K. A. Psychological Reactance and Promotional Health Messages: The Effects of Controlling Language, Lexical Concreteness, and the Restoration of Freedom. Hum. Commun. Res. 33, 219–240 (2007).
  2. Rains, S. A. & Turner, M. M. Psychological Reactance and Persuasive Health Communication : A Test and Extension of the Intertwined Model. 33, 241–269 (2007).
  3. Williams, G. C., Cox, E. M., Kouides, R. & Deci, E. L. Presenting the Facts About Smoking to Adolescents. Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 153, 959 (1999).
  4. Toll, B. A. et al. Comparing Gain- and Loss-Framed Messages for Smoking Cessation With Sustained-Release Bupropion: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychol. Addict. Behav. 21, 534–544 (2007).
  5. Matz, S. C., Kosinski, M., Nave, G. & Stillwell, D. J. Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 114, 12714–12719 (2017).