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Shock and Awe? The Effects of Negative Framing

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Framing is about presenting an issue in a specific light and from a specific perspective. Framed messages are usually intended to make the audience focus on certain aspects of an issue but not on others. In terms of governance and accountability, framing is a useful technique to design communication in a way that mobilizes the public. For instance with regard to corruption: to mobilize public opinion on corruption one could focus on successes in fighting corruption, on negative effects of corruption, on corrupt individuals or individual champions against corruption etc. Negative framing, negative messaging in general, is a frequently used approach when trying to motivate people to become active. It's not clear, however, that it really works the way it's supposed to.

One example of negative vs. positive framing are loss and gain frames. When an issue is presented while pointing out potential gain, the story emphasizes good things that will happen when something specific is being done. For instance, with regard to corruption authorities could design a campaign that shows a community boycotting stores that pay for protection by organized crime and thereby driving out the criminals and increasing safety in the community. Gain frames often result in good feelings and in hope on the side of the audience. People become motivated to act in a certain way in order to gain something good. A loss frame, on the other hand, is a more urgent call to action and points out what can happen if you don’t do something to prevent a bad thing from happening. The message about organized crime and corruption would in this case portray a community where families mourn loved ones that have become victims of organized crime. Loss frames raise negative feelings, but also point out the urgency of an issue.

Positive frames inspire hope, while negative frames are better suited to express the urgency of fighting wrongdoing. But negative emotions also hinder the memory of the audience: people will remember fewer facts from a message. On the other hand, negative frames are more likely to grab people’s attention. Research on information processing and emotions tells us that anger inducing messages lead to respondents being more likely to make causal inferences in terms of ascribing responsibility to specific persons. Anger appeals also induce optimistic risk-perception and readiness toward risk-taking (see Lerner and Tiedens, 2006). Messages that induce fear make the audience overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening - which can lead to heightened awareness and attention, but also to people being frightened (see Isbell et al., 2006). Messages that are designed to make the audience feel guilty can have the effect of making people think more carefully about an issue (see O'Keefe, 2000).

Negative frames are possibly better able to elicit strong reactions from the audience than positive frames (although: there isn't much research on the effects of positive emotions in messages). This would seem to be just what we as communicators would desire. Overly strong emotions, however, are not always conducive to mobilizing the audience, fear can also immobilize them. Communicators must be very clear about the objectives of their messages when choosing how to frame their messages.

Photo credit: Flickr user niallkennedy


Submitted by Karen Johnson Cartee, Ph. D. on
In political matters, the focus should move away from attitudes; since Robinson (1976) study investigating negative news effects, we have known that low involvement citizens (involvement with the issue) are influenced first by information or cognitive change, which produces behavioral change, which eventually produces attitudinal change. While high involvement citizens move from cognitive change to attitudinal to behavioral. The power of negative information has more to do with cultural expectations, however. Within western democracies, research has shown that negative information is far more attention-getting than positive information. In addition, people not only attend to the information, but they talk about the information with others, creating a spiral effect, in that when people talk about negative information with others, they may serve as influentials, bringing news to those who have not attended to the news through the mass media, or they may assist in concretizing the significance of news reports, through their discussions with others. For this reason, negative information tends to be more suasive, and as a result, people retain the information; furthermore, because of its cued negativity, they are able to access that information far more readily than positive information. In short, negative information saves time, money and effort; it is far more economical, efficient and effective than positive information, within western democracies (see Lau's considerable research). The key is what is expected within the cultlure. Because within western democracies, the news media attack individual political actors rather than the system, institutions, or political philosophies, people are not accustomed to thinking ill of the government or social institutions. When news reports provide information such as the Selling of the Pentagon Documentary, which aired on CBS, in the U. S. in the early 1970s, exposing the planned manipulation of the American people by the Pentagon, researchers at first saw no change, but within a few weeks, the effects were observed. The key here is do not expect immediate and direct effects; allow the time and the reinforcement opportunities of multiple exposures to similarly constructed messages, about the same event or theme. In this way, people have time to reaffirm what they have learned, have the opportunity to speak with others, about their concerns, allowing the social processes to work, which ultimately produces far greater suasive effects than the mass media alone. Unfortunately, we still do not have enough published research to know how people of various cultures, of various nationalities, who may represent distinctly different sub-cultures treat negative information. I'm only reporting what is known about western democracies. These are the types of questions that should be examined, when social change agents work within a society, examining how the people treat negative and positive information. However, regardless of socioeconomic standing, political news or advertisements are simply different than commercial news or advertisements; therefore, in social change planning, practitioners should move away from attitude structures, focusing on information structures, allowing people to form their own attitudes, after exposure to crucial information and political cues (reinforcing cultural symbols). Thanks, KJC

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