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Keeping Safe vs. Staying Healthy: The Role of Regulatory Fit in Social Distancing Adoption, Behavioral Science and Policy


To limit COVID-19’s spread, governors in the United States have issued orders requiring social distancing. Some states’ directives spotlight the goal of health promotion (that is, staying healthy) whereas others underscore the goal of illness prevention (keeping safe). Regulatory fit theory holds that persuasiveness is influenced by how well the framing of a message resonates with people’s fundamental motivations that influence recipients’ behavior. People who are motivated to approach desirable outcomes generally respond best to health messages having a promotion frame, whereas people who are motivated to avoid undesirable outcomes respond best to messages having a prevention frame. In the research presented in this article, we show that the effectiveness of COVID-19-related directives is influenced by the fit between promotion or prevention framing and the recipients’ “identity”— whether they view themselves as independent actors or as part of a larger community. In two experiments, we found that an appeal that highlighted health promotion and benefits to the individual (as in “What you can do to help you stay healthy”) or one that highlighted disease prevention and protection to society (as in “…do to keep America safe”) led to the greater intent to practice social distancing than did appeals employing other pairings of framing and identity. Messaging that incorporated regulatory fit were particularly effective in persuading those who were currently lax in social distancing to reduce the number of times they planned to leave home. The findings suggest that policymakers should consider regulatory fit when designing public health communications relating to COVID-19 and other directives.




Angela Y. Lee, Jiaqian Wang

Date Published



Lee, Angela Y., and Jiaqian Wang. 2021. Keeping Safe vs. Staying Healthy: The Role of Regulatory Fit in Social Distancing Adoption. Behavioral Science and Policy.


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