Jari Lyytimäki and Timo Assmuth
Communication is typically understood in terms of what is communicated. However, the importance of what is intentionally or unintentionally left out from the communication process is high in many fields, notably in communication about environmental and health risks. The question is not only about the absolute lack of information. The rapidly increasing amount and variability of available data require actors to identify, collect, and interpret relevant information and screen out irrelevant or misleading messages that may lead to unjustified scares or hopes and other unwanted consequences. The ideal of balanced, integrative, and careful risk communication can only rarely be seen in real-life risk communication, shaped by competition and interaction between actors emphasizing some risks, downplaying others, and leaving many kinds of information aside, as well as by personal factors such as emotions and values, prompting different types of responses. Consequently, risk communication is strongly influenced by the characteristics of the risks themselves, the kinds of knowledge on them and related uncertainties, and the psychological and sociocultural factors shaping the cognitive and emotive responses of those engaged in communication. The physical, economic, and cultural contexts also play a large role. The various roles and factors of absent information in integrative environmental and health risk communication are illustrated by two examples. First, health and environmental risks from chemicals represent an intensively studied and widely debated field that involves many types of absent information, ranging from purposeful nondisclosure aimed to guarantee public safety or commercial interests to genuinely unknown risks caused by long-term and cumulative effects of multiple chemicals. Second, light pollution represents an emerging environmental and health issue that has gained only limited public attention even though it is associated with a radical global environmental change that is very easy to observe. In both cases, integrative communication essentially involves a multidimensional comparison of risks, including the uncertainties and benefits associated with them, and the options available to reduce or avoid them. Public debate and reflection on the adequacy of risk information and on the needs and opportunities to gain and apply relevant information is a key issue of risk management. The notion of absent information underlines that even the most widely debated risk issues may fall into oblivion and re-emerge in an altered form or under different framings. A typology of types of absent information based on frameworks of risk communication can help one recognize its reasons, implications, and remediation.
Shawn Meghan Burn
Bystander intervention is a form of helping that occurs when onlookers intercede to provide direct or indirect aid to a victim. When bystanders step in to prevent or reduce harm to others, they act as agents of primary and secondary health prevention. But theory and research suggest the bystander intervention process is complex and multiple social-psychological and situational barriers imperil bystander action. Bystanders are often ill-prepared to intervene when others are at risk for emotional or physical harm. They may not notice that someone needs help due to distraction from self-focus, engagement in social interaction, intoxication, or aspects of the situation like crowding or noise. Due to inadequate knowledge, bystanders may misdiagnose the situation and believe intervention is unnecessary. The negative consequences of nonintervention may be unknown to them such that the situation fails to increase their empathic arousal and motivate their action. Lacking knowledge, they may not recognize the seriousness of the situation and or the potential costs of inaction, and so are insufficiently alarmed. Pluralistic ignorance can arise when multiple uncertain bystanders conceal their concern and hesitate to act, assuming others’ inaction means intervention is inappropriate or unnecessary. When there are multiple witnesses, bystanders may assume their help is unneeded, place intervention responsibility on others, or feel less responsible for helping due to diffusion of responsibility. When the victim is not a member of their in-group, or is assumed at fault for their predicament, they may feel less empathy and a reduced responsibility to help. Or, bystanders may assign responsibility for intervention to the victim’s friends or fellow in-group members, or to those “in charge” of the setting. Even when bystanders realize help is needed and take responsibility for helping, they may not act if they do not know how or lack confidence in their ability to successfully carry out the actions required to help. When they have the skills, they may not help if they perceive the costs of action to outweigh the benefits of action. Audience inhibition arising from group norms supporting inaction and from bystander worry about what others will think about them if they act unnecessarily or ineptly can prevent bystander action by increasing bystanders’ perceived helping costs.
Recognition of bystanders as a potentially valuable public health asset has increased interest in promoting bystander intervention. Bystander intervention promotion and communications empower bystander action by combating intervention- and audience-specific barriers to bystander intervention using targeted information, communications, and skills training. Theory and research suggest that effective promotions and communications foster context-specific attitudes, beliefs, norms, and skills such that bystanders: (1) are able to quickly and accurately identify a situation as intervention-appropriate; (2) experience action-motivating arousal (including empathy) in the face of the event; (3) have positive attitudes towards intervention and perceive the benefits of action as outweighing the perceived costs; (4) are empowered to act and feel confident in their ability to effectively intervene (bystander efficacy); and (5) are resistant to evaluation apprehension and norms contraindicating action. Effective bystander intervention promotion draws on social psychology and communications studies, and best practices for health promotion and prevention programs. The application of social marketing and formative and summative program evaluation methods enhance the potential of bystander intervention promotions and communications to empower bystander action.
Behavioral journalism is a term used to describe a theory-based health communication messaging strategy that is based on conveying “role model stories” about real people and how they achieve healthy behavior changes. The aim is to stimulate imitation of these models by audiences of their peers. Theoretical foundations for the strategy itself are in Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory and Everett Rogers’s model of diffusion of innovations, but it can be used flexibly to convey various kinds of theory-driven message content. Behavioral journalism emerged as an explicit health communication technique in the late 1970s and was developed as a distinct alternative to the social marketing approach and its focus on centrally generated messages devised by experts. It has been used subsequently to promote smoking cessation, improvements in nutrition and physical activity, avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy, reduced intergroup hostility, advocacy for healthy policy and environmental changes, and many other diverse health promotion objectives. Formats used for behavioral journalism include reality television programs, broadcast and print news media, printed newsletters for special audiences, documentary film and video, digital and mobile communication, and new social media. Behavioral journalism is intended for use in concert with community organization and actions to prompt and reinforce the imitation of role models and to facilitate and enable behavior change, and its use in that context has yielded many reports of significant impact on behavior. With citations of use growing steadily in the past two decades, behavioral journalism has proven to be readily adaptable to new and emerging communication technologies.
Dani Filc and Nadav Davidovitch
The medical encounter is one of the most important channels of communication between the patient and his or her caretaker. Apart from its therapeutic effect, the medical encounter serves to convey information about a symptom or disease; construct a diagnosis and give information about the expected course of a disease (“prognosis”); and discuss treatment plans, including risks and benefits. The centrality of the medical encounter makes ethical considerations fundamental, not only within the clinical context but also within the broader context of health promotion. Furthermore, since the medical encounter is characterized by asymmetry and dependence, it can create problems of abuse of power or subordination. The current dominant liberal bioethical approach tends not to take into account the power relations within the medical encounter, or the social context in which the medical encounter takes place. It is in this sense that a republican egalitarian approach to bioethics can be of use. Instead of traditional bioethics emphasis on the individual and on personal autonomy, a radical egalitarian health rights approach will stress the importance of social structures, and the need for a different institutional framework that works toward making a universal right to health possible. Such an approach also emphasizes the centrality of politics in building adequate institutions and in modifying those social structures that cause inequities in health. These considerations have important consequences on how the medical encounter should be constructed, such as in the case of conveying risk and disclosing medical errors.
Health promotion communication interventions invariably raise ethical issues because they aim to influence people’s views and lifestyles, and they are often initiated, funded, and influenced by government agencies or powerful public or private organizations. With the increasing use of commercial advertising tactics in health promotion communication interventions, ethical issues regarding advertising can be raised in health promotion communication when it applies techniques such as highly emotional appeals, exaggerations, omissions, provocative tactics, or the use of children. Key ethical concerns relate to infringing on people’s privacy, interfering with their right to freedom of choice and autonomy, and issues of equity (such as by widening social gaps, where mainly those who are better off benefit from the interventions). Interventions using digital media raise ethical issues regarding the digital divide and privacy. The interventions may have unintended adverse effects on the psychological well-being of individuals or groups (e.g., by inadvertently stigmatizing or labeling people portrayed as negative models). They can also have an effect on cultural aspects of society (e.g., by idealizing particular lifestyles or turning health into a value) and raise concerns regarding democratic processes and citizens’ consent to the interventions.
Interventions can have repercussions in multicultural settings since members of diverse populations may hold beliefs or engage in practices considered by health promoters as “unhealthy,” but which have important cultural significance. There are also ethical concerns regarding collaborations between health promoters and for-profit organizations. Identifying and considering ethical issues in the intervention is important for both moral and practical reasons. Several ethical conceptual frameworks are briefly presented that elucidate central ethical principles or concerns, followed by ethical issues associated with specific contexts or aspects of communication interventions.
Worldwide, key behavioral risk factors for ill-health and premature death include smoking, alcohol, too much or too little of several dietary factors, and low physical activity. At least three structural factors (biological attributes and functions, population size and structure, and wealth and income disparities) modify the global impact that the risk factors have on health; without accounting for these structural drivers, the effect of government-driven incentives to act on the behavioral risk factors for improved health will be suboptimal. The risk factors and their impact on health are further driven by malleable circumstantial drivers, including technological developments, exposure to products, social influences and attitudes, and potency of products. Government-driven incentives, which can be both positive and negative, can act on the circumstantial drivers and can impact on the behavioral risk factors to improve or worsen health. Government-driven incentives include a range of policies and measures: policies that reduce exposure; regulation of the private sector; research and development to reduce potency; resource allocation for advice and treatment; direct incentives on individual behavior; and, managing co-benefits and adverse side effects. Within a framework of government-driven whole-of-society approaches to improve health, an accountability system is needed to identify who or what causes what harm to health to whom. A health footprint, modeled on the carbon footprint is proposed as the accounting system.
Amy E. Chadwick
Hope has been defined in primarily two ways, and both have implications for message design within health and risk communication. First, hope has been defined as a way of thinking, or disposition, that affects how people pursue goals. Dispositional hope manifests in beliefs about one’s capacity to initiate and sustain action toward goals (agency) and one’s ability to generate ways to reach those goals. Dispositional hope has been associated with positive physical and mental health outcomes. For example, high-hope women have greater intentions to engage in cancer prevention behaviors than do low-hope women. Numerous studies have associated higher hope with better pain management, and people who are higher in hope have a greater pain tolerance than people lower in hope. Hope is also related to better psychological adjustment.
Much of the research on dispositional hope focuses on correlating hope with a variety of positive health and non-health outcomes; however, psychotherapeutic interventions have also been designed to increase dispositional hope. These interventions have shown improvements in health-related outcomes. Although their potential is not yet realized, interventions for developing dispositional hope could improve compliance with medical recommendations, increase adoption of health behaviors, and decrease risk behaviors.
The second way that hope has been defined is as a discrete emotion. Discrete emotions are brief, intense, psychological, and evaluative reactions directed at external stimuli (e.g., people, events, or objects). In response to these external stimuli, emotions help individuals adapt to their environment by activating a unique pattern of thoughts (cognitions), physiological changes, subjective feelings, motor expressions, and action (or behavioral) tendencies.
Lazarus’s cognitive-mediational theory has been one of the most influential theories of discrete emotions that includes a definition of hope. Lazarus identifies the core relational theme of hope as “fearing the worst but yearning for better.” Lazarus deems hope to be a problematic emotion because he believes hope contains both positive and negative elements. Despite uncertainty about the exact nature of hope, Lazarus believes that hope is vital to coping with stress. Hope enables people to believe in the possibility of better circumstances and therefore is critical as a coping mechanism against despair. Lazarus does not provide guidance for what a message might need to include to evoke hope.
Drawing on Lazarus and appraisal theories in general, MacInnis and de Mello suggest tactics that consumer marketing advertisements could use to induce hope. Specifically, the authors focus on turning “impossibility into possibility” and enhancing “yearning.” De Mello and MacInnis also theorize that hope can lead to motivated processing of information resulting in both positive (e.g., coping, well-being, and goal achievement) and negative (e.g., risky behavior, self-deception) outcomes. Unfortunately, the theorizing of de Mello and MacInnis was never empirically tested.
To further explore how feelings of hope are created, Prestin examined underdog narratives in entertainment media. Underdog narratives show characters who are attempting to meet a goal despite unfavorable circumstances and odds. These narratives evoke hope and make people more motivated to meet their own personal goals. Although their potential has not been fully explored, underdog narratives may assist individuals in overcoming challenging circumstances, such as battling addiction or developing new health habits. There are numerous mechanisms still to be examined that may explain the effects of underdog narratives beyond their ability to evoke hope.
Recently, Chadwick defined hope as a future-oriented, discrete emotion that focuses on an opportunity to achieve a desired future outcome. Her definition builds on the work of Lazarus and Roseman and has implications for the design of messages that evoke hope. According to Chadwick, hope is evoked by appraisals of a future outcome as (a) consistent with goals (goal congruence), (b) possible but not certain (possibility), (c) important (importance), and (d) leading to a better future (future expectation). All four of these appraisals combine to create a perception of opportunity and the discrete emotion hope. Hope motivates behavior by focusing one’s thoughts on capitalizing on an opportunity. Chadwick states that hope also involves (a) an approach action tendency that motivates individuals to take, or continue, action to achieve the desired outcome, (b) increased heart rate and skin conductance, (c) an open facial expression, heightened focus, and alert body posture, and (d) a feeling of eager attention.
Chadwick’s definition has clear implications for developing messages that evoke hope. Messages designed to create appraisals of the importance, goal congruence, positive future expectation, and possibility of a future event evoke hope and are called hope appeals. Like other theoretical explications of emotional appeals, a hope appeal has two components: (a) the inducement of hope through the presentation of an opportunity and (b) the presentation of recommended actions to achieve the desired outcome. The recommended actions component includes information designed to (a) increase the receiver’s perception of his or her ability to perform the recommended action (i.e., self-efficacy) and (b) demonstrate the ability of the recommended actions to achieve the desired outcome (i.e., response efficacy).
Empirically, scholars have tested the effects of hope and messages that evoke hope. Hope appeals increase attention to messages about climate change and increase mitigation behavioral intention and mitigation behavior. In addition, feelings of hope increase interest in climate change protection and are positively correlated with pro-environmental behaviors and support for climate change policies. Feelings of hope significantly predict interest in climate protection, self-efficacy, interpersonal communication intention, information seeking intention, and behavioral intention. Hope and hopeful narratives have also been associated with greater perceived message effectiveness and more agreement with the message content. After a stressful experience that accelerates heart rate, evoking hope decelerates heart rate and decreases state anxiety. This research provides evidence that messages that evoke hope can counter the psychological and physiological effects of stressful events. In addition, researchers have examined the effects of hope on a variety of health, persuasion, political communication, and marketing outcomes. Preliminary evidence indicates that hope appeals are equally as or more effective than guilt and fear appeals at increasing interpersonal communication intention, self-efficacy, information seeking intention, and behavioral intention. In addition, hope appeals create less reactance (anger) than fear appeals. Together these results indicate that hope and hope appeals have substantial potential to influence health and risk behavior.
Michael L. Hecht and Michelle Miller-Day
Adolescent substance use and abuse has long been the target of public health prevention messages. These messages have adopted a variety of communication strategies, including fear appeals, information campaigns, and social marketing/branding strategies. A case history of keepin’ it REAL, a narrative-based substance abuse prevention intervention that exemplifies a translational research approach, involves theory development testing, formative and evaluation research, dissemination, and assessment of how the intervention is being used in the field by practitioners. The project, which started as an attempt to test the notion that the performance of personal narratives was an effective intervention strategy, has since produced two theories, an approach to implementation science that focused on communication processes, and, of course, a school-based curriculum that is now the most widely disseminated drug prevention program in the world.
At the core of the keepin’ it REAL program are the narratives that tell the story of how young people manage their health successfully through core skills or competencies, such as decision-making, risk assessment, communication, and relationship skills. Narrative forms not only the content of curriculum (e.g., what is taught) but also the pedagogy (e.g., how it is taught). This has enabled the developers to step inside the social worlds of youth from early childhood through young adulthood to describe how young people manage problematic health situations, such as drug offers. This knowledge was motivated by the need to create curricula that recount stories rather than preaching or scaring, that re-story health decisions and behaviors by providing skills that enable people to live healthy, safe, and responsible lives. Spin-offs from the main study have led to investigations of other problematic health situations, such as vaccination decisions and sexual pressure, in order to address crucial public health issues, such as cancer prevention and sex education, through community partnerships with organizations like D.A.R.E. America, 4-H clubs, and Planned Parenthood.
Holley A. Wilkin
When it comes to health and risk, “place” matters. People who live in lower-income neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by obesity and obesity-related diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes; asthma; cancers; mental health issues; etc., compared to those that live in higher-income communities. Contributing to these disparities are individual-level factors (e.g., education level, health literacy, healthcare access) and neighborhood-level factors such as the socioeconomic characteristics of the neighborhood; crime, violence, and social disorder; the built environment; and the presence or absence of health-enhancing and health-compromising resources. Social determinants of health—for example, social support, social networks, and social capital—may improve or further complicate health outcomes in low-income neighborhoods.
Social support is a type of transaction between two or more people intended to help the recipient in some fashion. For instance, a person can help provide someone who is grieving or dealing with a newly diagnosed health issue by providing emotional support. Informational support may be provided to someone trying to diagnose, manage, and/or treat a health problem. Instrumental support may come in the help of making meals for someone who is ill, running errands for them, or taking them to a doctor’s appointment. Unfortunately, those who may have chronic diseases and require a lot of support or who otherwise do not feel able to provide support may not seek it due to the expectation of reciprocity. Neighborhood features can enable or constrain people from developing social networks that can help provide social support when needed. There are different types of social networks: some can enhance health outcomes, while others may have a more limiting or even a detrimental effect on health. Social capital results in the creation of resources that may or may not improve health outcomes.
Communication infrastructure theory offers an opportunity to create theoretically grounded health interventions that consider the social and neighborhood characteristics that influence health outcomes. The theory states that every neighborhood has a communication infrastructure that consists of a neighborhood storytelling network—which includes elements similar to the social determinants of health—embedded in a communication action context that enables or constrains neighborhood storytelling. People who are more engaged in their neighborhood storytelling networks are in a better position to reduce health disparities—for example, to fight to keep clinics open or to clean up environmental waste. The communication action context features are similar to the neighborhood characteristics that influence health outcomes. Communication infrastructure theory may be useful in interventions to address neighborhood health and risk.
Paul W. Speer and Leah Marion Roberts
Agents of change serve as catalysts for stimulating social change, particularly at community and societal levels of analysis. We often think about the characteristics of individuals who act as change agents, such as their capacity to motivate others or their training skills. However, organizations and disciplinary fields can also serve as agents of change. There is an emerging awareness in the fields of public health and community organizing as to how these respective fields can collaborate to leverage their collective insights and skills to become effective agents of change for community health outcomes. Importantly, while public health is concerned with the social determinants that shape health inequities in all communities, community organizing is focused on community issues that residents confront as constraints or problems in their daily lives. There is an inchoate understanding within the fields of public health and community organizing that the social determinants addressed in public health are often the same issues identified and addressed by community organizing groups.
Both disciplines work as agents of change through their traditional efforts; however, there is promise in the evolving collaborations between these two fields. Recognition that both fields are addressing the same community phenomena is an important step, but whether collaborations and shared practices become distributed and institutionalized is an open question. Public health possesses research and analytic sophistication capable of identifying different social determinants and the pathways through which such determinants contribute to poor community health outcomes. In contrast, community organizing supplies an understanding of social change that requires the exercise of power through the participation and active engagement by those most directly affected by local issues or social determinants. One tension in this emergent collaborative practice stems from the fact that, at times, these different disciplinary skill sets are at odds. Whereas public health has a deep value of data analysis and expertise, community organizing prioritizes the participation and self-determination of those impacted by community problems. Fundamentally, the tension here is between the value placed on expertise versus the value placed on public participation. Neither value is inherently superior to the other; understanding how these two values can complement one another to address social determinants that shape community health outcomes is critical for realizing the promise of these organizational agents of change.