Framing: The Psychological Principle That Will Change the Way You Think About Your Health

We all have a pesky little voice inside our heads telling us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not skinny enough, not tough enough. Your job, if you want to get healthier, be happier, and live longer, is to learn how to use that nagging voice to your benefit.

In this article, you’ll learn about the psychological phenomenon known as framing. It’s something you and I encounter every day, multiple times per day.

And it may be holding you back, big time.

But if you understand how to use framing to your advantage, you’ll see how powerful of a strategy it can be to help you take control of your health.

Let’s dig in …

What Is Framing and Why Should You Care?

Framing is a process your brain uses to find patterns in chaos and create meaning out of uncertainty.

The way you frame information has a profound effect on your day-to-day life.

For example, which of these two statements do you think is more likely to get you off your butt and moving?

  1. Exercising regularly can help you lose weight.
  2. Not exercising regularly can make you gain weight.

When researchers looked at 94 peer-reviewed clinical studies they found that the first type of message is much more likely to get you to change your unhealthy behaviors.

They’re called “gain-framed messages” and they’re proven to be significantly more effective at helping people adopt cancer prevention habits, quit smoking, and exercise more.

Here are a few other examples of how you experience framing in everyday life:

  • You’re much more likely to buy a pound of meat when it says “90 percent lean” instead of “10 percent fat”.
  • You will respond much more favorably when a physician tells you a treatment has a “95 percent success rate” as opposed to a “5 percent failure rate”.
  • We perceive the statement “0.0001% risk of permanent disability” to be much weaker than “1 in 100,000 vaccinated children will be permanently disabled”, even though the first statement implies a higher risk of disability.
  • Democrats say “Healthcare Reform” while Republicans say “Obamacare”.

Here’s where things get really interesting though.

According to research from Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, most of us will avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented.

In other words, most of us hate losing much more than we like winning (this is called “loss aversion”).

In fact, these guys actually calculated the average loss aversion ratio: 1.5 to 2.5. This means in most situations we face, a potential gain has to be 1.5 to 2.5 times more beneficial to balance an equal chance we lose.

power of framing

This type of behavior is deeply rooted in evolutionary biology. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains how organisms that treated threats as more urgent than opportunities had a better chance to survive and reproduce.

With our days of outrunning giant predators behind us, however, this type of behavior and thinking can actually hold us back.

How Framing Affects Your Mind and Health

Selfefficacy is the extent to which you believe you can actually achieve a goal. One research study found that people who started a weight loss program and believed they were going to succeed lost more weight during the course of the program.

And research from Dr. Jeni Burnette at the University of Richmond confirmed the impact framing can have on your success when you’re trying to lose weight.

Burnette presented students with two fabricated articles—one that told students they were helpless to change their weight because of genetic factors and one that told students they had control over their weight. At the end of the experiment, students who received the first article reported significantly less optimism, more helplessness and less desire to increase their efforts on future diets.

Think about how this applies to your own life. How many times have you said or thought to yourself:

  • I’m too busy.
  • I don’t have “skinny” genes.
  • Losing weight is too hard.

The way you frame things matters. Negative framing holds you back. In fact, research shows that people who frame things in a positive light:

  • Deal with adversity more effectively.
  • Take proactive steps to protect their health (pessimistic people, on the other hand, are more likely to engage in health-damaging behaviors.
  • Are healthier.
  • Make more money.
  • Have better relationships.

Even something as simple as saying, “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” can have a huge impact. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research compared two groups of people who were trying to lose weight: one was coached on using empowering language to stay focused on the goal, such as “I don’t eat ice cream” or “I don’t skip my workouts”. The other was coached to use “can’t” instead of don’t (i.e., “I can’t eat ice cream” or “I can’t skip my workout”).

They found that those who used “I don’t” statements were much more likely to persist in practicing healthy habits and avoiding unhealthy ones.

Action Steps: How to Use Framing To Your Advantage

If you want to reach your ideal weight, replace flab with muscle, and live a happier and healthier life, what you say and how you say it matter.

Framing things in a positive light works.

I’m not saying losing weight is all wine and roses.

It’s hard. And it’s okay to be a realist. Just not a pessimist.

Negative Nancys never win, and even worse, they make everyone else around them uncomfortable with their self-defeating talk and constant need for attention to their life’s sad inadequacies.

Here’s how I use framing to my advantage and you can too:

  1. Recognize when it happens. Your mind is like a muscle: the more you use it the stronger it gets. The more you recognize when framing happens, the sharper your mind will become. And then you’ll be better equipped to re-frame negative messages into positive ones. This is what leads to action … and action is the foundation of success.
  2. Write it down. I probably sound like a broken record but do yourself a favor and write stuff down. What are your goals? What are you going to do to get one step closer to those goals today? Tomorrow? Next week? I use Evernote to track my goals, notes and progress and a daily planner to track everything I want to get done. It works.
  3. Use strong, affirmative statements and repeat them to yourself often:
    • I will lose weight.
    • I don’t drink soda anymore.
    • I can do this.

That’s it. This is incredibly easy but can reap a ridiculous amount of rewards on your life.

Leave a comment and tell me: what are some examples of framing you’ve noticed in your life? How did you respond to them?

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  1. I am so glad I found your website. I have learned so much in just the 3 days I have been reading. Thank you for putting all of this out there for people to see. It makes getting healthy a lot easier when you have someone giving you advice on how to live healthier than someone just trying to sell you the latest and greatest workout videos, shakes or miracle diets. Thank you.

  2. Good, science-based information worth reading!!! Good post!!!

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