Every day we make important health decisions ranging from what we choose to eat to how physically active we choose to be. Such decisions have a dramatic impact on broad health outcomes, especially as we age. For instance, in light of evidence documenting decreased physical activity with advanced age, how can the health promotion decisions of older adults be influenced? Although traditional conceptualizations of decision making have focused heavily on the cognitive, deliberative aspects of decision making, recent perspectives have emphasized the role of emotion in decision making, which may become more prominent in later life. Although older adults experience declines in deliberative psychological processes critical to decision making, they show stability in emotional processes and also show a preference for positive over negative material. These divergent age-related trajectories may then impact how older adults make health-related decisions. In the health domain, one specific way in which behaviors such as exercise are impacted is through message framing. In particular, loss-framed messages that emphasize the negative consequences of not engaging in a behavior are particularly persuasive for behaviors involving risk (e.g., detecting an illness). In contrast, gain-framed messages that emphasize the benefits of engaging in a behavior are particularly effective for promoting preventative behaviors (e.g., exercise). The proposed research will examine the underlying affective and cognitive mechanisms of message framing as applied to exercise in older and younger adults as well as how such messages may influence actual physical activity. Specifically, this research will: (1) explicate how emotional ad cognitive processes underlie age differences in the processing of framed health-related messages, and (2) examine how message framing impacts the exercise engagement, adherence, and maintenance of older adults.
These aims will be met first through two laboratory experiments that examine the effects of gain- versus loss-framed messages on the affective reactions, attitudes, and behavioral intentions of older and younger adults. In addition, three intervention studies will examine how such message framing impacts the behavior of older adults with respect to an evidence-based fitness program with documented success in improving health and well being, Fit &Strong!. By pursuing these aims, this project promises: to increase our understanding of the role of cognitive and emotional processes in decision making across the adult life span;to better inform prescriptive recommendations for how to best frame certain health messages;and to illustrate the effectiveness of message framing on enhancing the physical activity, health, and cognitive vitality of older adults through a health intervention
Many aspects of public health involve making important decisions, as well as engaging in healthy behaviors. The current project aims to examine how message framing influences decision making in younger and older adults, and how such methods can be applied to increase physical activity in older individuals. The results of this project will have useful policy and intervention implications for the public health sector.