New research shows that positive presentation works much better than fear based presentation for influencing others.

In a recent anti-smoking campaign on TV, smokers who are suffering the horrendous consequences of smoking tell their story in an attempt to get others to not smoke. One spot features a lady talking into the incubator of her premature child, another her son bathing her because she is incapacitated. This is scary advertising. (These anti-smoking commercials border on horror films in their approach.)

But what if you told people about the positive outcomes to influence a smoker to have a healthier life. You can have whiter teeth, smell better, have more money in your pocket  and not wheeze when you run more than 10 yards.


Positive focus is actually a better long-term influence approach and research backs this.

Our instinctive reaction can often be to attempt to scare others to the behavior we desire them to take. We tend to reason that people pay more attention to frightening messages. Because of this, we falsely conclude that more people will take our fear-based messages to heart. Most government agencies agree with this approach. Warning labels cover packages. Billions of dollars are appropriated each year on campaigns that focus on the negative. This is the typical go-to for healthcare public service announcements. We, the ignorant masses, surely must be frightened into changing our foolish ways.

However, research doesn’t back this.

Originally it was agreed that framing messages in terms of losses and negative consequences tends to get people’s attention, but research has begun to question this ‘common sense’ conclusion.

A recent compendium gathered the results of 29 different studies, which had been carried out on 6,378 people (O’Keefe & Jensen, 2008). Both consumer advertising and public service announcements were studied.

What the compendium reports is that the expected advantage for negative message didn’t serve to influence others towards true change. In fact, there was an influence advantage for messages that were framed positively. But this advantage for gain-framed appeals seemed to be mainly confined to disease prevention, such as encouraging people to use sunscreen. However another review of the field also found an advantage for positive-framed appeals in encouraging healthy eating (O’Keefe & Jensen, in press).


Why Does This Happen?

Part of it is the human condition. While we might recount bad things in our past, most of us think of future personal events in a more positive light than is even statistically probable. Maybe you’ve seen the recent Prudential commercial where participants are asked to place yellow and blue magnets on a board. (View the commercial here.) This experiment greatly reveals we tend to have a positive future outlook. That is, we as humans tend to disregard fear-based or negative predictions as not accurate to us. Other studies have revealed that this positive bent.

For example:

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation - from the sun, tanning beds, lamps or booths - is the main cause of skin cancer, accounting for around 86% of non-melanoma and 90% of melanoma skin cancers.


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 50.1% of all adults and 65.6% of white adults ages 18-29 reported suffering sunburn in the past 12 months, indicating that sun protection measures are not followed correctly, if at all.

A more recent study from the University of California-San Francisco stated that the popularity of indoor tanning is "alarming" - particularly among young people.

The study revealed that 35% of adults had been exposed to indoor tanning, with 14% reporting tanning bed use in the past year. Even more of a concern was that 43% of university students and 18% of adolescents reported using tanning beds in the past year.

“Don’t try to scare us, because it won’t happen to me,” is the shaping perception of the message recipients, “I’m immune from negative consequences.” (That is, until we aren’t).

Someone states that 3 out 4 four people will suffer negative consequences from a behavior and invariably, we’ll place ourselves as the 1 in 4 that will escape harm.

All of these findings are weird because normally bad things attract our attention more than good things and so they are processed more thoroughly. That’s why the newspapers and TV have the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Newscasts and papers are full of alarming stories, trying to grab our attention and gain ratings.

But these aren’t effective. A recent review by Prevention Magazine shows how fear based messages aren’t effective in preventing teens from using illegal drugs and alcohol.

The Prevention magazine article concludes:

Low fear messages from credible sources that are based on facts, tied to the present and appeal to more positive emotions should be used instead. While both fear based messages and fact based drug education can increase knowledge and negative attitudes toward substance use, these approaches have not been shown to reduce or prevent substance use behavior

(See more at

We don’t truly know why negative-framed appeals turn out to be so ineffective, and in some most cases are a worse influence frame than a positive message. O’Keefe and Jensen suggest it might be because we don’t like to be bullied or told what to do. We don’t like to be to “stop, quit or cease anything” yet most fear based influence is centered around this paradigm, “stop this or else…”


Positivity Rules When It Comes to Influence

Since most behavior we attempt to influence by its very nature is going to happen in the future, we should strongly consider using positive influence messages.

We do prefer to think about nice things with positive outcomes. Given the choice between visualizing lung cancer and or wrinkle-free skin coupled with a dazzling white smile, I know which one I prefer to think about. And if I am willing to spend more time thinking about the positive side of life, then you’ve got a better chance of influencing me with a message of encouragement and positive vision rather than negative fear.

Start today reframing your influence message by sharing the positive end-result of the change you wish to see.

  • What benefits am I going to experience by doing what you recommend?
  • How is going to bring greater satisfaction to me?
  • And make those benefits FAR more desirable than the effort you are asking me to make to achieve it, even if that effort is monumental.
  • Eliminate the “If we don’t, then….(fear based consequence)” language from your influence. Instead use, “Because we will, then…(positive outcome)” language instead.

Follow the advice of renowned influencer Zig Ziglar, who said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.” Be a positive influencer!


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From regional manager to international executive with quadruple the pay, Karen Keller’s unique blueprint carefully outlined the step-by-step process for creating high-impact influence and let me know when I was being influenced in a way that didn’t serve me.
Lloyd Moore
Global Director Supplier Quality & Development - Lear Corporation – South Carolina