When trying to motivate stakeholders, is it better to highlight the benefits of taking the action or highlighting the consequences of not taking the action? Communication professionals constantly debate the answer to this question. If you believe the results of several studies, the answer is clear and not up for debate. Most people are more motivated by the fear of loss than the happiness of gain.
Studies on Loss vs. Gain Messages
The nonprofit MDRC (Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation) study found that highlighting what someone would lose by not attending a meeting was more effective than highlighting what someone would gain by attending the same meeting.
A set of families in Los Angeles was split into three groups. Members of all three groups received the same generic mailers, letting them know that they needed to meet with a social worker in order to take part in a special program. All three groups received the same generic information. One group received an additional letter outlining the benefits of attending a meeting. The second group also received an additional letter, but this one highlighted what would be lost if they did not attend a meeting. The third group only received the original generic information. The difference in attendance rates was statistically the same for the group that received just the generic notice and the group that received the benefits notice. However, the group that received the consequence letter had an attendance rate that was 4.4 percent higher than the group that received just the generic notice.
These findings are consistent with the economic theory of loss aversion, which states that the feeling of losing money is stronger than the feeling of gaining money.
Economic Theory of Loss Aversion
In a classic experiment, one set of individuals was given $50 and a choice using a gain message. They could keep $30 of the $50 or play a 50/50 game of chance. If they won, they would get to keep the entire $50. If they lost, they would give up the whole $50. Only 43 percent of the group said they would flip a coin.
Another group was also given $50.These individuals were given the same choice, but framed as a loss message. They could give back $20 or play the same game of chance with the same odds and with the same results. Amazingly, 61 percent said they would play the game to try to keep from losing money.
Application for Communicators
Knowing about loss aversion can help a communicator develop impactful talking points that can move the needle with key constituents. I am sure your thinking about the omnipresent desire to stay positive.
The solution is what I call, a two-beat talking point. It starts with the positive message and then slides into the loss component. When creating a two-beat talking point it is important for both points to naturally flow into each other. I find having one side being a one-breath clause and the other a multi-breath clause works best. Here is an example when the goal is to motivate homeowners to use LED light bulbs:
Using LED light bulbs lowers your energy use, and keeps you from overpaying on your monthly energy bill.
This approach will increase talking point effectiveness and keep from wasting opportunities to deliver your message. See what I just did.