Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 46, Issue 2, pp 385–394 | Cite as

The Impact of Gain- and Loss-Framed Messages on Young Adults’ Sexual Decision Making: An Experimental Study

  • Kathryn MacapagalEmail author
  • Erick Janssen
  • Margaret Matson
  • Peter R. Finn
  • Julia R. Heiman
Original Paper


Messages that frame a target behavior in terms of its benefits (gain frame) or costs (loss frame) have been widely and successfully used for health promotion and risk reduction. However, the impact of framed messages on decisions to have sex and sexual risk, as well as moderators of these effects, has remained largely unexplored. We used a computerized laboratory task to test the effects of framed messages about condom use on young adults’ sexual decision making. Participants (N = 127) listened to both gain- and loss-framed messages and rated their intentions to have sex with partners who posed a high and low risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The effects of message frame, partner risk, participant gender, ability to adopt the messages, and message presentation order on intentions to have sex were examined. Intentions to have sex with high-risk partners significantly decreased after the loss-framed message, but not after the gain-framed message, and intentions to have sex increased for participants who received the gain-framed message first. Yet, participants found it easier to adopt the gain-framed message. Results suggest that loss-framed messages may be particularly effective in reducing intentions to have sex with partners who might pose a higher risk for STIs, and that message presentation order may alter the relative effectiveness of gain- and loss-framed messages on sexual decision making. Future studies should examine the precise conditions under which gain- and loss-framed messages can promote healthy sexual behaviors and reduce sexual risk behaviors.


Message framing Sexual risk taking Sexual decision making Young adults 



Data collection was supported in part by predoctoral fellowships to the first author (F31 MH090895 and TL1 RR025759) and R01 DA017924 to Peter Finn. We are grateful to Caitlin Anderson, Rebeka Schwartz, and Loren Twigg, who assisted with data collection and processing, and to Heather Rupp and Thomas James, who gave feedback on earlier drafts of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Medical Social SciencesNorthwestern University Feinberg School of MedicineChicagoUSA
  2. 2.The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and ReproductionIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.Institute for Family and Sexuality Studies, Department of NeurosciencesUniversity of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  4. 4.Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public HealthIndiana University—Purdue University IndianapolisIndianapolisUSA
  5. 5.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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