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The Deal on the Floss

Tell him what he'll gain from it, and Austin Powers might just listen to you when you tell him to brush his teeth — not because his teeth are atrocious (which they are) but because he is British.

A new study, "The Cultural Congruency Effect: Culture, Regulatory Focus, and the Effectiveness of Gain- vs. Loss-Framed Health Messages," soon to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, reveals the way we respond to health messaging is at least partly based on how well the message's framing mirrors the behavioral motivations of our own culture.

Need clarification?

Well, psychologists believe an individual's behavior is regulated in one of two ways — either promotion focused, motivated by a desire to attain goals and rewards, or prevention focused, guided by a need to fulfill duties and avoid loses or punishments. One size, in other words, does not fit all.

Pointing to past research, the authors noted that in Eastern, more collectivistic cultures, "Individuals favor prevention over promotion strategies, focusing on the negative outcomes they hope to avoid rather than the positive outcomes they hope to approach." That's not the case in Western cultures, where people are more individualistic, favoring promotion over prevention strategies. In short, two different cultures can have two distinctly different styles of behavior — and react differently to an ostensibly neutral message.

Knowing this, the researchers asked 100 University of Essex undergraduates, half identifying themselves as "white British" and the rest as of East-Asians, to take a test measuring their behavior style, read a message on the importance of flossing, and, afterwards, rate their feelings toward flossing. Messages had either a "gain-frame" message, focusing on flossing benefits like healthy gums and salubrious smiles, or a "loss-frame" message, emphasizing hazards like bad breath and cavities that result from not flossing.

Cultural background did correlate with a participant's behavior style and this, in turn, determined how persuaded the person was by a gain- or loss-framed message.

"White British participants, who had a stronger promotion focus, were more persuaded by the gain-framed message, whereas East-Asian participants, who had a stronger prevention focus, were more persuaded by the loss-framed message," say researchers Ayse Uskul, David Sherman, and John Fitzgibbon.

The authors concluded that "culture is an important factor with the potential to shape the persuasive power of messages by influencing how they are understood and interpreted."

I don't need persuading. Can anyone pass me some floss?