In a forthcoming article in the journal Communication Research, Graham Dixon challenges popular belief that emotional appeals have a wide sweeping effect on people’s health beliefs.

Many health practitioners believe the best way to communicate the value of vaccination is to highlight the consequences of non-vaccination by using emotional pictures. However, Graham’s study shows that approach can backfire, particularly with individuals who have anti-vaccine views.

Here’s the abstract from the paper.

 Negative Affect as a Mechanism of Exemplification Effects: An Experiment on Two-sided Risk Argument Recall and Risk Perception

This study explores the effect of negative exemplars on two-sided message recall and risk perception, as mediated by negative affect. In an experiment, participants were randomly assigned to an article presenting conflicting risk arguments about vaccination that either included a photograph exemplifying one argument side (receiving a vaccine is risky), a photograph exemplifying the other argument side (not receiving a vaccine is risky), or no photograph (control condition). Exemplifying the risks associated with vaccination influenced uneven recall and risk perception. Negative affect, rather than perceived argument strength, mediated these effects and was a stronger predictor of risk perception than risk argument recall, lending support to the affect heuristic. However, exemplifying the risk of not vaccinating produced null effects on affect, risk perception, and recall, despite using the same photograph. A follow up study suggests motivated reasoning played a role in this null finding, providing direction for future research.

Graham’s study has been given coverage in various news outlets including The Seattle Times and KIRO TV News.  

Note: Dixon’s research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s program in Decision, Risk and Management Sciences.