The way condom-use promoting messages are framed influences their effectiveness

“Let’s talk about condoms.” Whether or not that conversational topic is introduced in a budding romantic relationship may depend on what type of condom-promotion messages the partners have heard.

The way messages promoting condom-use are framed influences the effectiveness of the messages, according to a recent study co-authored by Dee Lisa Cothran, Ph.D., who conducted extensive research on the topic as a psychology doctoral student in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, “Why Are You Bringing Up Condoms Now? The Effect of Message Content on Framing Effects of Condom Use Messages,” was published this spring in the American Psychological Association’s journal Health Psychology. Cothran’s co-authors are Susan M. Kiene and William D. Barta of the University of Connecticut and John M. Zelenski of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

Data collected from college-age participants supported the hypothesis that the way in which a message is framed and the way it emphasizes personal health versus a relationship with a sexual partner influences the perceived effectiveness of the message. Gain-framed messages emphasize the benefits or gains of adhering to the message, and loss-framed messages point out the risks of not adhering to a message.

“The goal of this study was to examine the ways in which different aspects of messages promoting condom use contribute to the overall perceived importance and persuasiveness of the messages,” says Cothran, who began work on the collaborative study about four years ago.

The researchers sought to examine the influence of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s (1981) message-framing technique on condom-use-promoting messages. Previous research suggests that gain-framed messages are more effective at promoting prevention-oriented behaviors, such as sunscreen use, and that loss-framed messages are more effective at promoting detection-oriented behaviors, such as mammograms and HIV testing.

“Condom use can be viewed as either a health behavior or as an interpersonal behavior,” Cothran says. “Regarding messages that emphasize one’s personal health like preventing the contraction of STDs such as HIV, it was hypothesized and supported that gain-framed messages promoting condom use, such as messages emphasizing the benefits and ‘pluses’ of using condoms, were rated as more important and more convincing than loss-framed messages promoting condom use like messages emphasizing the risks and consequences of not using condoms.

“Regarding messages that are relationship-relevant — as in urging one’s sexual partner to use a condom — it was hypothesized and supported that loss-framed messages promoting condom use, like messages regarding one’s heightened risk of contracting an STD when one’s partner does not wear condoms, were rated as more important and convincing than gain-framed messages promoting condom use, such as messages regarding one’s decreased risk of contracting an STD when one’s partner does wear condoms.

“I believe that this research has aided the distinction in the literature regarding the dual nature of the behavior of condom use,” Cothran says. “Condom use is both a prevention behavior and, due to its dyadic nature, can be considered a detection behavior. The current research revealed higher evaluations for gain-framed, health-outcome condom messages and loss-framed, relationship-threat condom messages.”

Gender differences

The results also revealed that the effects of the message-framing techniques would be stronger for women than men. The participants included 59 male and 108 female undergraduates with a median age of 19.76 years. All participants were unmarried and 97 percent were heterosexual; 92 percent were Caucasian, 6 percent were African American and 2 percent reported “other.” Most — 64.1 percent — had experienced sexual intercourse.

A second study was done with 90 male and 135 female participants in order to further test gender differences in addition to the influence of “relationship involvement.”

“Overall, women viewed all messages as more convincing and more important than did the men in this study,” Cothran says. “And the effects for framing and content were significant for women but were not significant for men.

“It is also important to note that although condom use is primarily perceived as a male-centered behavior, the women in this study reported a greater perceived control over sexual encounters than did the men,” she says. The study did not assess actual behavior with regard to condom use, she emphasized.

Cothran hopes that the study will result in future attempts by researchers to examine the influence of other aspects of messages and their influence on the overall effectiveness of condom-promoting messages.

“This research highlights ways to make arguments promoting condom use more effective,” she says. “Perhaps marketing campaigns will employ these techniques.”

She suggested some messages that may be effective based on the study results:

  • If you avoid having sex when you are drunk or using other drugs, you are more likely to practice safe sex and therefore you are at less risk of getting an STD or HIV.
  • Not knowing how to convince a partner to use a condom fails to protect both of you from STDs and HIV.

Cothran, whose research specialties include personality correlates of emotive information processes and prejudice and discrimination, earned her doctorate in psychology from Washington University in June. This fall, she will start as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.