Recently one of our researchers presented at a conference for PR and Communications professionals and highlighted the importance of ‘loss aversion’ in human behaviour. This describes how all of our brains are wired to experience losses much more acutely than gains. As a result, our researchers suggested that when they wanted to influence behaviour, communications professionals should talk about the costs of not doing something rather than the benefits of doing it.
In the question time following that presentation, one of the conference participants noted that this idea flies in the face of conventional communication practice which places the emphasis on the positive message. So which is it?
Fortunately, social science has a clear answer. According to Peter Salovey, it depends on whether the new behaviour we want to promote is perceived as risky or safe. If the person we’re talking to considers the new behaviour to be safe, the key is to emphasise all the good things that will happen if they change to it.
But where they believe the new behaviour is a risk, the challenge is to overcome the status quo bias. To do this, we need to emphasise the bad things that will happen if they don’t change. This makes taking that risk more appealing, because of the threat of that loss.
So the lesson seems to be to accentuate the positive where the audience sees safety, and emphasise the negative where they fear risk.