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How do health messages affect younger and older adults?

A study conducted by the Adult Learning Lab looked at how the framing of a health message evoked an emotional response in adults, and how that response influenced their perceived effectiveness of the message. The study was published in Experimental Aging Research.

Published on Oct. 17, 2019

People frequently encounter different types of health messages in their lives, such as in the doctor’s office or on TV. New research indicates the framing of the message can affect how the message is perceived.

Researchers Liz Stine-Morrow and Xiaomei Liu are shown on the Beckman patio
Liz Stine-Morrow (left) and doctoral student Xiaomei Liu recently published research on how the framing of a message evokes an emotional response.

“An example of a gain-framed message is, ‘If you exercise regularly, you will have good cardiovascular health,’” said Xiaomei Liu, a doctoral student in educational psychology who works in the Adult Learning Lab. “However, for a loss-framed message you would say ‘If you don’t exercise regularly, you will have poor cardiovascular health.’ According to the health communication literature, how you structure the information can influence the effectiveness of the message.”

Other studies have shown that the message framing can evoke different emotional responses in people. However, not many studies have linked the emotional responses to the perceived effectiveness of the message.

Researchers in the Adult Learning Lab have attempted to do that in a recent paper. “Doing What Makes You Happy: Health Message Framing for Younger and Older Adults” was published in the journal Experimental Aging Research.

To collect data, the researchers conducted an online study using a platform that was developed by Amazon. “It’s a new trend in psychology studies. It’s a quick way to get a large sample that is in some ways more typical than samples typically recruited into the lab,” Liu said.

The researchers found that older adults have more positive reactions to the gain-framed messages. “This is consistent with the developmental theory that older adults focus more on positive things,” Liu said. “The cool finding is that older adults show fewer negative emotions toward loss-framed messages. We also found that the more positive people feel about the gain-framed messages, the more effective they feel the message is, and this relationship is stronger among older adults.”

On the other hand, young adults feel more negative when they encounter loss-framed messages. Additionally, the more negative they feel, the more effective they think the message is. “It’s interesting because it’s exactly the same in content,” said Liz Stine-Morrow, a professor of educational psychology who directs the lab. “The way you frame it causes different emotional reactions, which in turn, impact perceived effectiveness.”

The future directions of the research are to look at how framed messages can promote actual health behaviors. “One of the limitations of this study is that we asked them to rate the effectiveness of the message, but that’s different from actual behavioral change,” Stine-Morrow said. “Our collaborators at DePaul University are conducting studies to invite people to participate in an exercise program to see whether framed messages have differential effects on encouraging them to participate.”

“Another limitation is that we have been focused on exercise messages. We want to see whether we can apply this to other fields of health behavior,” Liu said.

The group also will embed health messages in longer discourses to test whether people can implicitly activate their emotions while reading. “In this study we asked people to rate how they feel and how effective the message is. We want to know whether they activate those emotions without us telling them to think about it,” Liu said.

The method involves tracking the eye movements of the participants. “We know from earlier literature that it takes you longer to read something you don’t expect. If the health message evokes an emotional response that is either consistent or inconsistent with the emotional background of the discourse, we should see that reflected in the reading time,” Stine-Morrow said.

The study, “Doing What Makes You Happy: Health Message Framing for Younger and Older Adults,” can be found online at

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  • Elizabeth A L Stine-Morrow
    Elizabeth A L Stine-Morrow's directory photo.

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