Pain and Pleasure in Persuasion
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Marketing Jan 8, 2014

Pain and Plea­sure in Persuasion

When fram­ing mes­sages, don’t for­get that emo­tions rule

Based on the research of

Miguel Brendl

Prashant Malaviya

One of the first rules of per­sua­sion is this: know your audi­ence. A large body of research, and end­less ad cam­paigns, have shown that fram­ing mes­sages dif­fer­ent­ly to appeal to dif­fer­ent mind­sets can be very effec­tive: the same mul­ti­vi­t­a­min, for instance, can be framed as pow­er­ing a healthy lifestyle to active peo­ple look­ing to get enough nutri­ents or as pro­tect­ing against ill­ness to peo­ple wor­ried about their health.

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But C. Miguel Brendl, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, and his col­league Prashant Malaviya at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty have found that, in some cas­es, the old recipe of match­ing mes­sages to mind­sets can back­fire, while mis­match­es can be effective. 

The Rules of Per­sua­sion

Akin to see­ing the glass as either half emp­ty or half full, peo­ple can view the world through one of four lens­es: they can focus on gains (the good things that hap­pen), loss­es (the bad things that hap­pen), non-gains (the good things that do not hap­pen) or non-loss­es (the bad things that do nothap­pen). Mes­sages can then be framed to appeal to these dif­fer­ent mindsets.

Take the afore­men­tioned mul­ti­vi­t­a­min. It could frame itself as pro­vid­ing nutri­ents to gain-focused indi­vid­u­als or as pre­vent­ing sick­ness to non – loss focused indi­vid­u­als. It could also remind peo­ple what might hap­pen if they do not take their vit­a­mins: elic­it­ing fears of aging, mem­o­ry loss, or cal­ci­um defi­cien­cies — a loss mes­sage — or under­min­ing their con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ty to per­form at their best — a non – gain message.

A hypoth­e­sis called reg­u­la­to­ry match­ing” seeks to pre­dict how effec­tive­ly such mes­sage frames can con­vince peo­ple who are moti­vat­ed — either inher­ent­ly or thanks to a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion — in dif­fer­ent ways. Reg­u­la­to­ry match­ing is based on the assump­tion that moti­va­tion comes either from pro­mo­tion (think­ing about one’s hopes and desires, and how to achieve an ide­al out­come) or from pre­ven­tion (think­ing about safe­ty, one’s duties, and how to avoid obsta­cles to ful­fill­ing those duties). Accord­ing to this hypoth­e­sis, pro­mo­tion-moti­vat­ed peo­ple tend to focus on gains and non-gains, and so infor­ma­tion should be framed in terms of gains or non-gains. Pre­ven­tion-moti­vat­ed peo­ple, on the oth­er hand, focus on loss­es and non-loss­es, and so infor­ma­tion should be framed in terms of loss­es and non-loss­es. Peo­ple are most per­suad­ed, the hypoth­e­sis has it, when mes­sages are matched to mindsets.

The Hedo­nic Motive

Reg­u­la­to­ry match­ing hypoth­e­sis is backed by a num­ber of stud­ies. How­ev­er, only two types of mes­sages — gain-focused and non – loss focused mes­sages — have been exhaus­tive­ly stud­ied. Impor­tant­ly, both of these types of mes­sages are plea­sur­able, Brendl not­ed, while the oth­er two – loss­es and non-gains — are decid­ed­ly not.

How big of a dif­fer­ence could plea­sure make? An ad for the cho­les­terol drug Prava­chol, for instance, asked, If you have high cho­les­terol, will a heart attack make your life run out before it has to?” In most of us, this mes­sage would elic­it fear — a painful feel­ing. In con­trast, its com­peti­tor Lip­i­tor used the slo­gan The low­er num­bers you are look­ing for” in its adver­tise­ments. This mes­sage trig­gers relief — a plea­sur­able feel­ing. Both are framed in terms of loss­es — the first focus­es on loss and the sec­ond on non-loss — and so pri­or research pre­dicts that both mes­sages should appeal to pre­ven­tion-moti­vat­ed peo­ple. But it is easy to imag­ine that, in prac­tice, the two mes­sages could per­suade very dif­fer­ent audi­ences — that, there­fore, there are oth­er moti­va­tions at play.

Hedo­nic moti­va­tion, an idea that goes back to the Greek philoso­phers, is that we have a fun­da­men­tal motive to approach plea­sure and avoid pain,” Brendl says.

If some peo­ple are apt to focus on plea­sure, and oth­ers on pain, the researchers rea­soned, then hedo­nic motives — approach­ing plea­sure or avoid­ing pain — should com­bine with the pro­mo­tion and pre­ven­tion motives to pro­duce four mind­sets, not two (see table below): plea­sure pro­mo­tion (or gain focused), plea­sure pre­ven­tion (or non – loss focused), pain pro­mo­tion (or non – gain focused), and pain pre­ven­tion (or loss focused). Ear­li­er stud­ies have inves­ti­gat­ed the per­sua­sive­ness of plea­sur­able mes­sages and mind­sets, sug­gest­ing that gain-focused mes­sages appeal to gain-focused mind­sets and non – loss focused mes­sages to non – loss focused mind­sets. Will the same be true of the painful non – gain framed and loss-framed messages?

Table: framing messages according to four different mindsets
Table: Message frames tailored to each of four mindsets

Mind­sets and Mes­sages

Brendl and Malaviya set out to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly study all six­teen com­bi­na­tions (the four mind­sets crossed with each of the four mes­sage frames) in a series of exper­i­ments. Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est was the ques­tion of when pain-focused mes­sages — those high­light­ing loss­es or non-gains — would be persuasive.

When mind­sets and mes­sages were plea­sure focused, the reg­u­la­to­ry match­ing effect held.

In their first set of exper­i­ments, Brendl and his col­league led 326 par­tic­i­pants at a U.S. uni­ver­si­ty through a series of unre­lat­ed tasks. Par­tic­i­pants were instruct­ed to briefly write about either a hope (pro­mo­tion) or a duty (pre­ven­tion) in their lives, and then to imag­ine they were able (plea­sure) or unable (pain) to achieve or ful­fill it. Depend­ing on which of the four com­bi­na­tions they received, the task put them in a plea­sure-pro­mo­tion, plea­sure-pre­ven­tion, pain-pro­mo­tion, or pain-pre­ven­tion mind­set. In the next task, this mind­set was fur­ther strength­ened when par­tic­i­pants com­plet­ed rel­e­vant word frag­ments (e.g., hap­py and joy­ous for par­tic­i­pants in a plea­sure-pro­mo­tion mind­set; secure and relief for a plea­sure-pre­ven­tion mindset).

Final­ly par­tic­i­pants read ads for a fake juice brand, its descrip­tion and name manip­u­lat­ed to fit each of the four frames: drink­ing the juice could boost ener­gy (gain frame), or it could keep your heart safe from cho­les­terol (non-loss frame), while fail­ing to drink it could make you feel lack­ing in ener­gy (non-gain frame), or expose you to risk of high cho­les­terol (loss frame).

Brendl and his col­league found, as had pre­vi­ous stud­ies, that when mind­sets and mes­sages were plea­sure focused, the reg­u­la­to­ry match­ing effect held. Gain-focused peo­ple found gain-focused mes­sages more effec­tive than non – loss focused mes­sages. But when some­one with a plea­sure mind­set read an ad with a pain-focused mes­sage, or vice ver­sa, the effect turned on its head: sud­den­ly, gain-focused peo­ple found loss-focused ads — like those remind­ing them of the dan­gers of high cho­les­terol — more per­sua­sive than non – gain focused ads — like those remind­ing them about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lack­ing ener­gy — and eval­u­at­ed the juice more favor­ably. Two sub­se­quent stud­ies found sim­i­lar results.

Crossed Wires

This pat­tern of results was, in fact, just what Brendl and Malaviya pre­dict­ed would hap­pen. They had hypoth­e­sized that hedo­nic and reg­u­la­to­ry aspects would interact.

Why? Peo­ple draw infer­ences from how eas­i­ly they process infor­ma­tion,” Brendl explains. When you start think­ing about some­thing, that makes the under­ly­ing knowl­edge more acces­si­ble. It’s very easy to under­stand an argu­ment that is relat­ed to this knowl­edge, and you’re more per­suad­ed than if you have a hard time under­stand­ing the argu­ment.” That’s why mes­sages that match mind­sets on all dimen­sions should be persuasive.

But if the two match on some dimen­sions but not oth­ers, the brain gets its wires crossed. Some parts of the mes­sage spring to mind eas­i­ly, inter­fer­ing with the parts of the mes­sage that come more slow­ly. This makes the whole mes­sage hard­er to under­stand — and there­fore less persuasive.

This explains why gain-focused respon­dents found loss-focused ads per­sua­sive. The juice with a gain-focused frame, Ener­gy­Boost, invokes both plea­sure and pro­mo­tion, which are what these respon­dents were focused on in the first place, ren­der­ing this mes­sage per­sua­sive. The juice with a loss-focused frame, LoC­holes, on the oth­er hand, invokes both pain and pre­ven­tion. Because pain and pre­ven­tion are so clear­ly dif­fer­ent from plea­sure and pro­mo­tion, the knowl­edge struc­tures acti­vat­ed by a gain focus do not inter­fere with the loss mes­sage — giv­ing the mes­sage a boost in acti­va­tion, and mak­ing it easy to understand.

But the non – loss focused Heart­Safe juice acti­vates plea­sure and pre­ven­tion. This match­es the gain respon­dents’ focus­es along one dimen­sion, but not the oth­er. Inter­fer­ence ensues. A gain-focused con­sumer will have a hard­er time fig­ur­ing out whether Heart­Safe juice offers a gain, and the sub­tle pro­cess­ing dis­rup­tion will be enough to under­mine persuasiveness. 

Tar­get­ed Talk

This more nuanced under­stand­ing of per­sua­sive­ness — that a message’s effec­tive­ness depends not just on whether it is relat­ed in terms of gains or loss­es, but also on whether it describes a plea­sur­able or painful event — could help com­pa­nies, adver­tis­ers, and even politi­cians deter­mine how to bet­ter tar­get their mes­sages to reach a par­tic­u­lar audience.

For instance, invest­ment pro­fes­sion­als know that peo­ple tend to wor­ry about their finances before retire­ment — shift­ing them towards the painful side of the hedo­nic spec­trum. That could mean a cou­ple things, depend­ing on someone’s nor­mal finan­cial mind­set. If some­one is gain-focused nor­mal­ly, but before retire­ment gets con­cerned, she might move into a non-gain [mind­set],” Brendl says. If some­one else who gets con­cerned before retire­ment is nor­mal­ly more non-loss focused, he might devel­op a loss mindset.”

Finan­cial com­pa­nies could use that knowl­edge to under­stand, and speak to, what their clients are going through. The counter-intu­itive con­clu­sion that this research sug­gests is that loss-focused clients would find a gain-focused mes­sage (about, say, what they can look for­ward to in retire­ment) more per­sua­sive than a non – loss focused mes­sage (about, for instance, what their care­ful sav­ings can pre­vent), where­as the non – gain focused client would find a non – loss focused mes­sage more appeal­ing than the gain-focused mes­sage. Com­pa­nies could adopt sim­i­lar strate­gies for events like tax-fil­ing dead­lines. Since they know that peo­ple go through cer­tain types of events, they could tai­lor their mes­sag­ing,” says Brendl. Com­pa­nies could even tai­lor the prod­ucts they offer their cus­tomers: safer invest­ments are non-loss focused, where­as high-yield invest­ments are gain focused.

For an addi­tion­al appli­ca­tion, Brendl points to com­pa­nies (and aca­d­e­mics) that now ana­lyze online con­ver­sa­tions to infer how neg­a­tive­ly or pos­i­tive­ly cer­tain brands or prod­ucts are eval­u­at­ed. If this type of analy­sis — called sen­ti­ment analy­sis — becomes more sophis­ti­cat­ed, then maybe you can infer from Inter­net con­ver­sa­tions whether a tar­get seg­ment has over­all a gain, loss, non-loss, or non-gain focus,” says Brendl. A com­pa­ny could then tai­lor its mes­sag­ing based on our findings.”

Featured Faculty

Miguel Brendl

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

About the Writer

Valerie Ross is a science and technology writer based in New York, New York.

About the Research

Malaviya, Prashant, and C. Miguel Brendl. 2014. “Hedonic Motives Moderate Regulatory Focus Motives? Evidence From the Framing of Persuasive Messages.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 106(1):1–19.

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