Health-promoting messages can be framed in terms of the beneficial consequences of healthy behaviour (gain-framed messages) or the detrimental consequences of unhealthy behaviour (loss-framed messages). An influential notion holds that the perceived risk associated with the recommended behaviour determines the relative persuasiveness of gain- and loss-framed messages. This ‘risk-framing hypothesis’, as we call it, was derived from prospect theory, has been central to health message framing research for the last two decades, and does not cease to appeal to researchers. The present paper examines the validity of the risk-framing hypothesis. We performed six empirical studies on the interaction between perceived risk and message framing. These studies were conducted in two different countries and employed framed messages targeting skin cancer prevention and detection, physical activity, breast self-examination and vaccination behaviour. Behavioural intention served as the outcome measure. None of these studies found evidence in support of the risk-framing hypothesis. We conclude that the empirical evidence in favour of the hypothesis is weak and discuss the ramifications of this for future message framing research.
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