It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

Say you want to persuade someone to purchase a product or service. One of your main questions will be how to frame the "pitch" to have the biggest impact. You could tell people what they stand to gain, or you could tell them what they stand to avoid. Which is more effective? It depends. 

Auto Barn is a company that sells automobile parts and accessories on the internet. In promoting their Steel Horse® Revolution Swing Away Bike Carrier, the persuasion claim focuses on, “Great looks and exceptional engineering. This bike carrier does it all.” However, when promoting their Deluxe Emergency Road and Safety Kit, a different approach is taken, “Don‟t be stranded with a disabled vehicle without an emergency road and safety kit.” One distinction between the two persuasion claims is the focus on the desirable end-states that would result from benefits gained (i.e., acquiring great looks and exceptional engineering by getting the bike carrier) versus the undesirable end-states that would result from benefits lost (i.e., getting stranded by not having the emergency road and safety kit).

Turns out Auto Barn is onto something. 

A "gain" frame is more effective when the message highlights promotion concerns, whereas a loss frame is more persuasive when the message emphasizes prevention concerns. According to the authors of a new paper "We argue that when people perceive themselves to be vulnerable to certain negative outcomes, they are likely to focus on the negative aspects of the situation (i.e., health benefit). Loss framed messages emphasizing benefits lost would thereby represent a high level fit, and be more persuasive than gain framed messages. In contrast, when perceived risk is low, people are likely to focus on the positive outcomes (i.e., health benefit). Gain framed messages emphasizing benefits gained would thus represent a high level fit, and be more persuasive."

So what do the authors mean by "fit." Turns out there are two things which aid in compatibility effects. First, people more readily process information that is consistent versus inconsistent with their prior beliefs. Second, and I'm a little fussy on this one, is called "processing fluency" — The processing of any stimulus can be characterized by a variety of parameters that are nonspecific to its content, such as speed and accuracy of stimulus processing.

When a message frame is consistent versus inconsistent with the way people naturally think about issues that involve positive versus negative outcomes, the message is easier to process and thus more effective.