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Two-Sided Messages and Pandemic Flu: Persuading the Public to Follow Contradictory Government Directives


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Principal Investigator(s):

Karen Hilyard
University of Georgia
Email: hilyard@uga.edu
Home Page: http://www.publichealth.uga.edu/hpb/about/directory/faculty/karen_hilyard-0

Sample size: 443
Field period: 4/25/2008 - 5/8/2008

 

Abstract:

This study investigates effective ways of persuading the public to follow two inherently-contradictory but critical government health directives during a flu pandemic. “Social distancing” asks people to avoid public gatherings and places, including work, school, worship services and sporting events; a second government directive (referred to here as “public queuing”) calls for individuals to go to centralized public distribution centers for medicines and supplies. These inherently-contradictory and potentially-confusing public health directives may undermine trust and credibility of public health officials in a pandemic, leading many people to discount risks and disregard recommendations. To more effectively communicate the contradictory directives, this study used two-sided messages, using the “contradiction” as the negative attribute and justification of the contradiction as the counterargument. Exploratory one-on-one interviews with demographically-diverse individuals (N=19) were followed by a 2 x 3, post-test-only experiment with a representative national probability sample (N=443). Qualitative phase investigated knowledge and perceptions about pandemic flu and pandemic policy and attempted to better explicate dimensions of source credibility. Experimental treatment was a fictitious news article with “pre-event” messaging regarding pandemic flu. Treatment conditions included two-sided messages with refutational counterarguments (shown historically to be more persuasive than other types of messages); two-sided messages with supporting arguments only; and one-sided messages. A quasi-control group that read an article about preventing seasonal colds and flu was also included. Independent variables were message order and message sidedness; dependent variables were perceived source credibility of public health officials and behavioral intention to comply with public health directives in a pandemic.

Hypotheses:

1. One-sided presentation of contradictory messages will decrease perceived credibility of a source.

2. One-sided presentation of contradictory messages will decrease an individual’s intention to follow the desired behavior.

3. The use of refutational counter-arguments in a two-sided message will increase perceived credibility of a source.

4. The use of refutational counter-arguments in a two-sided message will increase an individual’s intention to follow the desired behavior.

5. Perceived credibility and behavioral intention to comply with directives will be positively correlated.

6. There will be significant differences between the treatment groups and the control group that has heard no messages regarding proposed government policies during a pandemic.

Experimental Manipulations:

Fictitious news article with “pre-event” messaging regarding pandemic flu. Treatment conditions included two-sided messages with refutational counterarguments (shown historically to be more persuasive than other types of messages); two-sided messages with supporting arguments only; and one-sided messages. A quasi-control group read an article about preventing seasonal colds and flu. After answering all questions related to dependent variables, participants then read three negative comments about the policies from fictitious pundits and were asked if they were likely to reconsider behavioral intention.

Key Dependent Variables:

Perceived source credibility of public health officials and behavioral intention to comply with government directives in a pandemic.

Summary of Findings:

The message-sidedness hierarchy seen in the past was not supported in this research, and therefore four of the hypotheses were not supported. Perceived source credibility was significantly positively correlated with behavioral intention. The quasi control group had the highest perceived credibility, yet the lowest behavioral intention. Both two-sided message groups scored lower on perceived credibility questions than the one-sided message group. The credibility index also produced the only significant difference along demographic lines; perceived credibility of public health officials appeared increased with age but there was no significant difference by age for behavioral compliance. The Meyer’s Credibility Index performed consistently compared to past studies -- a single component scale with high reliability and appeared to fully explicate the construct of credibility in this experiment, but some responses in interviews indicated that non-verbal cues, perhaps related to the concept of “dynamism,” could also be important. Based on the two indices of behavioral intention, all message groups were favorably inclined to comply with government directives, even if they worried about “others” not complying. Interview participants had very little prior knowledge of avian/bird flu and government policies that might be enacted during a pandemic. In Question 14 (M=5.60), participants indicated they would be more likely than not to make their “own decisions” during a pandemic and both the interviews and in end-of-survey comments echoed this idea. 39.8% of participants said the contradictory nature of the policy would be a potential obstacle to their compliance; 46.8% of respondents felt that going to work during a pandemic wasn’t different than going to a distribution center, implying that they would be as likely to do one (going to work, a violation of directives as presented) as the other (going to a distribution center). After reading negative comments of pundits, 59.4% said they would be likely to reconsider their support for social distancing; 49.9% said they would reconsider their support for public queuing and post hoc statistical analysis supported this.

References:

Hilyard, K. M. (2008). Two-sided messages and pandemic flu persuading the public to follow contradictory government directives. Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia.

Hilyard, Karen M. (2009). In Search of a Standard Scale: Exploring the Dimensions of Perceived Source Credibility. Presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Annual Conference, Boston, Mass., August 2009.

Hilyard, Karen M. (2009). Two-Sided Messages & Pandemic Flu: Persuading the Public to Follow Contradictory Government Directives Presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Annual Conference, Boston, Mass., August 2009.

Hilyard, Karen M. (2009). Conversations about Pandemic Flu: Open-Ended Evaluation of Pandemic Preparedness Communication. (Working paper).


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