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date: 03 December 2020

Regulatory Focus and Regulatory Fit in Health Messaginglocked

  • Ilona FridmanIlona FridmanColumbia Business School, Columbia University
  •  and E. Tory HigginsE. Tory HigginsDepartment of Psychology, Columbia University

Summary

Regulatory Focus Theory differentiates between two motivational orientations: promotion and prevention. Promotion-oriented individuals focus on advancements, growth, and making progress toward their hopes and aspirations, whereas prevention-oriented people are more concerned about safety, security, and fulfilling their responsibilities. Promotion-oriented individuals tend to focus on moving toward a better state ensuring gains and improvements. In contrast, prevention-oriented people tend to focus on ensuring against making mistakes and maintaining a current satisfactory state rather than moving to something worse. When individuals pursue desired ends using their preferred means (ensuring gains for promotion, and ensuring against losses for prevention), they experience regulatory fit, which makes them “feel right” about what they are doing. Regulatory fit is associated with strengthening engagement and intensifying evaluative judgments.

The advantages of regulatory fit could be utilized in communications to motivate individuals’ healthy behavior. The messages that encourage healthy behavior could be framed in a way that fits recipients’ personal goal orientations. For instance, to increase motivation among promotion-oriented people for getting vaccinations, the message might state, “A flu vaccine helps you to continue achieving your goals even during a flu season.” This message emphasizes advancements and gains that fit a promotion orientation. To increase motivation among prevention-oriented people to choose healthy options, the messages could instead highlight avoiding losses: “A flu vaccine helps you avoid strength-sapping illness during a flu season.” Past studies on health communications have demonstrated that regulatory fit tends to facilitate participants’ willingness to follow the message and engage in healthy behavior.

Could regulatory non-fit messages also work? When individuals pursue desired ends using non-preferred means—ensure gains for prevention-oriented individuals or ensure against losses for promotion-oriented individuals—they experience regulatory non-fit. Non-fit makes them “feel wrong” about what they are doing. Regulatory non-fit is associated with weakening engagement and de-intensifying evaluative judgments. How might a non-fit health message be helpful?

What if individuals’ initial attitudes toward a healthy option were negative, even anxiety producing, despite that option serving their interests better than alternative options? It would be better if the individuals could thoughtfully consider the potential benefits of the option without their negative feelings rejecting it. For a thoughtful decision to be made, the intensity of the initial negative feelings could be decreased. A regulatory non-fit message, in this case, could be an effective tool. By making people “feel wrong” about their initial reaction, it could weaken their engagement and de-intensify the negative reactions, for example, reduce anxiety about the option. Thus, the regulatory non-fit message could help an individual to reconsider potential advantages of the initially disliked option.

While the ways in which Regulatory Focus and Regulatory Fit theories can be applied to improve health communications are known, important questions remain. For example, are there circumstances when fit or non-fit messages could make people feel that their decision-making autonomy is being threatened? Can fit or non-fit messages create resistance? If so, how can this be avoided? Both fit and non-fit messages are persuasive techniques. Is there a downside to these techniques? What can be done to ensure that these persuasive techniques are not just effective but are also ethical?

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