Research & Insights

Use the Right Emotion for the Right Ask

When it comes to encouraging people to get screened for cancer, research out of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University suggests that getting your audience to shed a few tears may be a good thing.

It is well-known by public interest communicators that engaging the emotions of your audiences is an important component of a campaign. But which emotions should we aim to evoke?

To answer this question, communications scholar and the winner of the 2014 $10,000 frank research prize Jina H. Yoo, health communications researchers Matthew W. Kreuter and Choi Lai, and biostatistician Qiang Fu studied how 489 low-income African American women reacted to one of two videos discussing how early detection of breast cancer can increase survival rates. Because African American women tend to go longer than their white counterparts without diagnosis and treatment, they often have poorer breast cancer outcomes.

The videos informed audiences about the risk of breast cancer, urged them to get information about the disease, and stressed the importance of regular mammograms. Participants were then asked whether the video held their attention. They also were quizzed to see how much they knew about breast cancer immediately after seeing the video and in a follow-up interview three months later.

The researchers found that evoking feelings of sadness (for example, over the loss of a breast or a changed relationship) was more effective than feelings of fear (over a potentially life-threatening diagnosis). “When participants felt sad watching the breast cancer video, they paid more attention to the message and were less likely to generate thoughts and ideas rejecting its message,” the study’s authors report. “Sadness was the only emotion that helped participants remember cancer risk messages.”

Fear, on the other hand, made it more difficult for audiences to pay attention and remember facts. “Fear impeded participants’ ability to recall information about breast cancer risk,” the researchers explain. “[It] actually inhibited participants from remembering the risk messages.”

The findings are in line with other studies that suggest that audiences sometimes deal with fear by tuning out frightening messages, especially when what they’re watching doesn’t have anything reassuring to say.

“The findings of the current study imply that sadness might be a valuable emotion to arouse in order to enhance message processing and persuasive outcomes of cancer communication,” Yoo, Kreuter, Lai, and Fu note.

Just remember to pack the tissues.

Health Communications

Jina H. Yoo, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Matthew W. Kreuter and Choi Lai, Washington University in St. Louis
Qiang Fu, Saint Louis University

Posted: May 29, 2015
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