Research & Insights

What You Value Most About Yourself Can Save Your Life

It’s long been known that health screenings that lead to early treatment of diseases like cancer and HIV, as well life-threatening conditions like high blood pressure, can save lives. Yet, fearing bad news, many people avoid screenings or even fail to follow up with their doctors to learn what their test results show.

So if messaging strategies that overemphasize threats to people’s well-being aren’t the answer, how can we first cure people of their fear of being screened?

According to University of Florida social psychologists Jennifer L. Howell and Dr. James A. Shepperd, one remedy may be to get people to associate potentially life-saving medical screenings with the things they value about themselves.

“If you can get people to refocus their attention from a threat to their overall sense of wellbeing, they are less likely to avoid threatening information,” says Howell.

Howell and Shepperd base their recommendations on three studies, which they describe in the February 2012 issue of Psychological Science.

In each of the studies, which involved about 100 students of both sexes, participants were asked to think of a trait they valued, such as honesty, compassion and friendliness. Participants then wrote an essay that either described how they demonstrated that trait in their lives or how they saw those and valued those traits in friends.

Next participants watched a video about a fictional disorder called thioamine acetlyase (TAA) deficiency. They were told that TAA impairs the body’s ability to process nutrients and can lead to severe medical complications. Afterwards, study participants completed an online risk calculator to determine their risk for the disease. They then decided whether they wanted to receive the test results or not.

In the first study, participants who wrote essays about themselves were more willing to learn about their risks for TAA than participants who wrote about their friends.

In the second study, participants learned that testing at high risk for TAA deficiency would either require an easy or onerous follow-up examination process. Participants who wrote essays about their friends, rather than themselves, were less willing to learn about potential risks from TAA risk than those whose wrote essays about themselves. In the third study, participants were told that TAA could be managed with a pill or that there was no effective treatment. Even when told there was a chance they might have no control over the illness, those who had written essays about themselves again were more willing to see their results than other participants in the study who had written about their friends.

The practical implication of communication strategies that encourage, rather than play to people’s fears, so they undergo screenings can’t be overstated. As Howell and Shepperd note, “many diseases have a narrow window of time in which they can be treated successfully, and even a temporary avoidance of personal medical information can therefore have dire consequences.”

Psychological Science, February 2012

Jennifer L. Howell and James A. Shepperd, University of Florida

Posted: August 7, 2014
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