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.

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.”