If the Message Doesn’t Fit, You Must Resubmit

What Behavioural Science Can Teach Us About High-Stakes Communications

I may be a behavioural scientist by training, but I did minor in communications way back in my undergrad days. And if there is one thing I learned in all my communications courses, it’s that communication is a two-way process in which a message is delivered AND received. Key in this equation is that the message is received.

Even if a message is delivered, without message reception, communication has not taken place.  When a message is not received it is a failure on the part of the communicator to tailor their message to the audience in question. There are many ways a message can miss its intended target. Some of the most common reasons have to do with demographics. Messages tailored for women may not reach women. Messages tailored for Torontonians may not reach Torontonians. Messages for Millennials may not reach Millennials — you get the point. Often times you have a good message but it’s not hitting the right audience and goes unreceived.

One of the less commonly understood reasons for communication failure is a mismatch between the message and the psychological makeup of the audience. The number of potential mismatches between a message and an audience, on a psychological level, is vast. And of course not all of these potential problems can be accounted for. However, the watchful eye of a trained behavioural scientist can mean the difference between successful communication and communication failure.

For example, take one small slice of behavioural science—the field of self-regulation. For our purposes, self-regulation refers to how individuals moderate their behaviour in response to the environment, based on predispositions or external factors.

Many years ago, my mentor at Columbia University, Tory Higgins, developed an influential theory of self-regulation called Regulatory Focus Theory. Now, after a couple of decades and many thousands of studies later, the theory is a validated framework that people continue to use. It is widely used in the seemingly esoteric world of scientific-academia but also in the “real-world” like business schools, advertising firms, and communications agencies.

Here is a very simplified explanation of how Regulatory Focus Theory would work within the context of communications: When communication is framed to match psychological states (i.e., ensuring the communication has the proper ‘fit’) people tend to feel more positively about the things that they are judging than when there is a mismatch (i.e., the psychological state does not match how the communication is framed).

Although there was a long history of using fit in the study of communications, my own academic research was among the first published work to apply fit to the study of forgiveness.1  

What I found back then was that after an interpersonal transgression had taken place (e.g. an argument), apologies that communicate a psychological state that is consistent with the recipient’s psychological state tend to elicit more forgiveness. Conversely, apologies that communicate a psychological state that is inconsistent with that of the recipient tend to elicit less forgiveness. Essentially, if your response fits the individual you have wronged, they will receive your apology more readily.

Recently, fellow researchers have taken things one step further and applied these findings to crisis communication to achieve greater consumer forgiveness. 2 In a series of thoughtfully designed experiments, these researchers found that “Guilt-framing communication results in higher forgiveness than shame-framing for angry consumers, whereas shame-framing communication results in higher forgiveness than guilt-framing for fearful consumers.”3 What this means is that it may be beneficial for communications to be crafted in a manner that conforms to the aforementioned pairing of emotions (i.e., guilt with anger/shame with fear). However, the results of early-stage research should always be approached with caution until they are replicated by other independent researchers.

But this doesn’t mean that some of the insights from this research can’t immediately be leveraged. In fact, I would argue, there is opportunity to at least reduce the potential for negative outcomes by simply keeping these findings in mind. For instance, when crafting communications for consumers who are feeling angry, avoid communicating shame or using phrases associated with it. And when crafting communications for consumers who are feeling fearful, avoid communicating guilt. The early research shows this could be a far more effective way of communicating with consumers.

This is but one small example of how communications can go wrong without an understanding of and ongoing relationship with behavioural science. I wouldn’t go so far as to say  that without a behavioural scientist on staff you are unlikely to ever know something like this, but having us around certainly helps. At the very least, we can provide you with data-driven rules of thumb for communications. For example, when a message does not fit, you must resubmit.

Knowledge of behavioural science and current findings within the academic/scientific literature can mitigate risks associated with mismatched messages and the unintended consequences that follow. This is why the very best communications are guided by research and have a deep understanding of behavioural science.


Navigator has a team of dedicated, Ph.D.-level behavioural scientists on staff who regularly conduct research and assist clients with crafting communications that not only hit the mark but avoid rubbing people the wrong way.



1 – Santelli, Alexander G.; Struthers, C. Ward; Eaton, Judy. Fit to forgive: Exploring the interaction between regulatory focus, repentance, and forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 96(2), Feb 2009, 381-394.

2, 3 – Yaxuan, Ran; Haiying, Wei, Qing, Li. Forgiveness from Emotion Fit: Emotional Frame, Consumer Emotion, and Feeling-Right in Consumer Decision to Forgive. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol 7, Nov 2016, 1-16.