“Let's table the discussion" is an  Adath Israel Shul initiative where a story or thought is presented in order to stimulate exciting and constructive discussion around our Shabbos table or among friends and children. (Dedicated to the Refuah Sheleima of Shalva Adina Bas Sarah Chana & Eliyahu Aharon Ben Yocheved Yetta Ettel).

Message framing is one of the most researched, yet least conclusively understood, phenomena in communication. Positive or gain-framed messages are sometimes effective, but negative or loss-based messages (such as fear appeals) are often favored by the public health community. In fact, when we listen to a variety of public service announcements or simple advertising in the media today, we find that in a 5 minute stretch of commercials we might hear a smattering of both positive and negative appeals. Take some of the more popular examples:

“This is Drugs, This is your Brain on Drugs. Any Questions?”

“Buy --- and see your skin soar”

“Eat broccoli and you’ll live longer”

“Smoking kills”

“Are You Pouring on the Pounds?” (A Mayor Bloomberg series of advertisements that decried super-sized drinks)

In each of these examples a message was attempted to better the lives of the listener. However in certain messages, the draw was to positive gains as a result of introducing healthy habits while other messages sought to create health through fear about negative results. Which style is most effective?

An APA study published in April 2014  reported that students who felt threatened by a teachers' messages which frequently focused on the fear of failure were less motivated—and had lower scores—than students who said their teachers didn’t use scare tactics. And yet, there are other studies that seem to suggest that fear appeals are successful. How is one to tell?

In a 2015 nutrition study, Cornell researchers Brian Wansink and Lizzy Pope studied 63 health studies and determined that there were 4 criteria that helped decide the message that is appropriate. They included:

  1. Are you highly involved in this issue?
  2. Are you detail-oriented?
  3. Are you risk averse?
  4. Is the outcome uncertain?

If the answer to the questions are yes, then the target in the audience is likely to benefit from a fear based appeal than a gains based approach.

All of the discussion about the role of gains-based versus fears based approach is relevant to a comment Rashi cites from the Talmud in Sotah (2a). While juxtaposing the section of the Sotah in the Torah with that of the Nazir, the Gemara tells us that whomever observes the Sotah in her degradation will abstain from drinking wine – ostensibly as a result of the fear that wine consumption leads to many other risky behaviors.

However, the venerable Tzaddik, Rav Tzaddok HaKohein of Lublin adds that in the oral law, Nazir comes BEFORE Sotah. Why?

Rav Tzaddok explains that sometimes we learn best from the fear appeal that exists when we see the dangers of a particular lifestyle. However, at other times, it is to man’s benefit to learn the lessons on his own and through his own self motivation. Not always will one be presented with a fear appeal. Sometimes the best positive gains are made when the person considers the choices s/he makes and decides what is best for him or her.

What approach are YOU most likely to be influenced with – one that is positive or negative based?

What approach is ideal for Chinuch in YOUR Home?

Let’s  “table” the discussion – by discussing it with our children, spouses, families and guests and open an exciting  discussion into our homes and communities.