Public health messages often tell people things they don’t want to hear: Smokers should stop smoking. Sedentary people need to get moving. Trade your pizza and hot dogs for a salad with lean protein.
For many people, these messages trigger our natural defenses. They make us feel bad about ourselves and our choices, leading our subconscious to reject the healthy encouragement.
However, a new study published in PNAS found that a simple priming exercise in which sedentary people think beyond themselves before viewing health messages can make those messages more effective. Not only did participants’ brain activity show that they were more receptive to the messages, but they actually became more physically active in the weeks that followed.
The study involved 220 sedentary adults who were either overweight or obese—people whose lack of physical activity puts them at increased risk for a variety of negative health outcomes.
“One of the things that gets in the way of people changing their behavior is defensiveness,” explains senior author Emily Falk, associate professor of communication, psychology, and marketing at the Annenberg School for Communication. “When people are reminded that it's better to park the car further away and get in a few more steps, or to get up and move around at work to lower their risk for heart disease, they often come up with reasons why these suggestions might be relevant for somebody else, but not for them.”
Read more at the Annenberg Center for Communication.