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Do negative health messages work?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Negative health messages from doctors can be counterproductive

Cornell researchers warn that negative messages about health may be counterproductive. Instead of instilling fear about unhealthy lifestyle practices, people are more likely to be happier and healthier from positive messages.


A new paper published by Cornell Food & Brand Lab in Nutrition Reviews suggests the general public does not respond to health messages designed to cause fear.

Co-author Lizzy Pope, Associate Professor and Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at the University of Vermont explains in a press release “a medical doctor would be more influenced by this style of messaging because they have the knowledge base to process the message and feel a duty to maintain a healthy lifestyle." But for the rest of us, more positive health messages are most effective.

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Why is the finding important? According to the Cornell lab scientists, the general public is more likely to want to change when they view health messages as a "choice", rather than a "threat". For example, giving the message that we will get skin cancer might do little to promote sunscreen use. A more positive message that our skin will stay youthful and healthy from sunscreen might be a better approach.

Brian Wansink, PhD director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design concludes, “Evoking fear may seem like a good way to get your message across but this study shows that, in fact, the opposite is true—telling the public that a behavior will help them be healthier and happier is actually more effective.”

See: Happiness can alert genes in a good way

What do you think of the suggestion that doctors and other clinicians give patients positive rather than negative messages to promote health and well-being?



It is an indisputable scientific fact. Anti-tobacco associations report 3 000-6 000 deaths per year in France ... I am curious to know their sources. No study has ever produced such a result. Many experts argue that passive smoking is also responsible for cardiovascular disease and other asthma attacks. Not you? They don’t base it on any solid scientific evidence. Take the case of cardiovascular diseases: the four main causes are obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes. To determine whether passive smoking is an aggravating factor, there should be a study on people who have none of these four symptoms. But this was never done. Regarding chronic bronchitis, although the role of active smoking is undeniable, that of passive smoking is yet to be proven. For asthma, it is indeed a contributing factor ... but not greater than pollen! The purpose of the ban on smoking in public places, however, was to protect non-smokers. It was thus based on nothing? Absolutely nothing! The psychosis began with the publication of a report by the IARC, International Agency for Research on Cancer, which depends on the WHO (Editor's note: World Health Organization). The report released in 2002 says it is now proven that passive smoking carries serious health risks, but without showing the evidence. Where are the data? What was the methodology? It's everything but a scientific approach. It was creating fear that is not based on anything. Why would anti-tobacco organizations wave a threat that does not exist? ... The anti-smoking campaigns and higher cigarette prices having failed, they had to find a new way to lower the number of smokers. By waving the threat of passive smoking, they found a tool that really works: social pressure. In good faith, non-smokers felt in danger and started to stand up against smokers. As a result, passive smoking has become a public health problem, paving the way for the Evin Law and the decree banning smoking in public places. The cause may be good, but I do not think it is good to legislate on a lie. And the worst part is that it does not work: since the entry into force of the decree, cigarette sales are rising again. Why not speak up earlier? As a civil servant, dean of the largest medical faculty in France, I was held to confidentiality. If I had deviated from official positions, I would have had to pay the consequences. Today, I am a free man. Le Parisien