Exemplification Theory in Health and Risk Messaging
Summary and Keywords
Humans often prefer representations that are cognitively easier to store, and such representations are easier to retrieve later to make judgments about the social world. Exemplification theory draws on physiological memory mechanisms and argues that simple, iconic, concrete, and emotionally arousing depictions of events (exemplars) are favored and thus more likely to be stored and used than are abstract, inconsequential depictions or representations. Inconsequential information or representations are forgotten because they are not processed as being essential for survival. Exemplified events vary on a continuum of how accurately they represent a larger occurrence of events. Through specific uses of pictures, quotes and other depictive strategies, concrete, iconic, and emotionally arousing information is often added to a story. Research has documented the strength of specific exemplars in creating inaccurate estimations of events and perceptions of severity and susceptibility. Moreover, in the presence of a risk, portrayals with exemplars have been shown to motivate individuals to intend to change behavior. Exemplification is a strong theory that is understudied and underutilized. The theory has strong explanatory, predictive, and organizing power, and it has application to phenomena in contexts such as media effects, persuasion, crisis and risk communication, health communication and public relations.
Exemplification theory (Zillmann, 1999, 2002; Zillmann & Brosius, 2000) suggests that events portrayed in a vivid, emotional, and concrete manner will have stronger perceptual influence than events that contain more general descriptions and statistical information. Individuals give “disproportional attention to concrete, often vividly displayed events … and … this attentional preference comes at the expense of attention to more abstract, comparatively pallidly presented information” (Zillmann, 1999, p. 70). Furthermore, this perceptual difference between cognition and reality will increase over time as the vivid events are remembered better and vague elements are more easily forgotten.
Exemplification theory often is described as a theory of media influence that deals with media representations, or exemplars. However, the theory has a much broader scope. Some exemplars are portrayals that have a high likelihood to drive people’s judgments and reactions to the social world. The theory draws on psychological storage principles aligned with three cognitive mechanisms (quantification, representativeness, and availability heuristics) to both explain and predict that exemplars that are concrete, iconic, and emotionally arousing influence issue perceptions more than exemplars that are abstract, symbolic, and emotionally inconsequential (Zillmann, 2002). Thus, the representations that humans attentionally favor, find cognitively easier to store, and retrieve from memory are more likely to be used to make judgments of the social world than abstract, base-rate information, even if such information is provided and/or is inconsistent with such representations.
Exemplars are common in everyday life. Exemplars are examples of an event often used to “elucidate a broader concept or issue” (Zillmann, 1999, p. 72). Exemplars can be grouped together to represent a larger population of events, and “must share a number of primary, defining attributes. However, because the events are not likely to be identical in every other regard, they may differ on any number of secondary attributes” (Zillmann, 2002, p. 23). Lower orders of attributes may exist as well, but they are generally regarded as inconsequential. Exemplars are used in interpersonal communication, education, news, entertainment, and advertising.
Exemplars may consist of personal experiences, stories, pictures, or a combination (Zillmann, 2006). Exemplified events vary on a continuum of how accurately they represent a larger occurrence of events. It has been argued that media organizations do not pick news or other content at random. Because such outlets often pick news stories based upon entertainment value, misrepresentation may be somewhat common. Certain sectors are highly selective in their exemplars: “[a]dvertising, and public-relations efforts can be viewed as persuasive undertakings in which only supportive exemplars are selected. Nonsupportive and challenging exemplars are discarded as counterproductive,” furthermore, “advertising defines a domain of communication in which patently distorted exemplification is expected and accepted” (Zillmann, 1999, p. 85). At certain times, “case population parameters are not known, [and] the degree of representation is not discernible” (Zillmann, 2002, p. 24). When statistical information is unavailable or unreported, it is natural that assumptions will be made, inaccurate as they may be.
Individuals commit a “spontaneously executed inductive inference” (Zillmann, 2002, p. 20) when a wide generalization is made based on a singular or limited number of events. This inferential capability is considered useful because it allows assumptions to be made about “phenomena lying outside the bounds of … limited experience” (Zillmann, 2002, p. 20). However, this generalization may be problematic in that an inaccurate view of a phenomenon may arise from the consumption of a limited number of exemplified events.
Base-rate information is typically considered impartial and consists of “more general descriptions. Specifications may include measured and quantified assessments, such as incidence proportions and rates of change of occurrences. They may convey data that are collected in adherence to the principles of science” (Zillmann, 2002, pp. 21–22). Zillmann suggests that base-rate information is often a more accurate representation of reality.
Zillmann (2002) explains that inconsequential information can be forgotten because it is not essential for survival. Events that are relevant to personal welfare are less easily forgotten. Exemplification effects are proposed on the basis of several assumptions: concrete events are stored and retrieved more easily than complex events, consequential events are given more attention and are more strongly stored in memory, and these coding assumptions lead to more general numeric assumptions about events.
Several mechanisms may help explain the cognitive imbalance of media exemplars (Zillmann, 1999). Priming occurs when recently activated cognitions influence perceptions. The availability heuristic suggests that frequently activated cognitions are more easily retrievable. Furthermore, representativeness is the assumption that media events have traits shared with the larger population of similar events.
Zillmann (2002) makes several predictions about media and perceptual influence. First, concrete events are more influential than abstract descriptions. Second, the influence of concrete events increases when they are iconic. Third, exemplars that are emotionally arousing, especially iconic ones, will influence perceptions more than those lacking emotional components. Fourth, the proportions of characteristics in exemplified events will be generally assumed as accurate. Fifth, when emotional and unemotional events are provided, emotional events will be assumed as more prevalent. Finally, increased attention to particular event features leads to overestimation of those features.
Generally, these predictions are assumed to increase as time passes. Research on news reports suggests largely that “recipients form their assessments of the presented issues on the basis of the exemplar sets rather than on abstract, quantitative information” (Zillmann, 2002, p. 31). However, this may depend on informational utility that “fosters attention and careful processing, ultimately giving such information due influence on judgment” (p. 32). Furthermore, Zillmann reports that most issues in the media do not have high informational utility. Therefore, inaccurate perceptions are able to form.
To reduce inaccurate perceptions, Zillmann (1999) offers several suggestions. First, when unique and singular cases are not representative of a larger population of events, they should be identified as atypical. And second, those providing information about a unique event should disclose when they do not know the actual proportion of similar events. Notably, however, these strategies still need to be empirically validated to determine effectiveness.
Recent research has found other factors that may increase exemplification effects. Greater perceptual realism can increase perceptions of severity, and, spatial presence and perceptual realism increase may intentions to help after a crisis (Westerman, Spence, & Lachlan, 2009). Westerman, Spence, and Lin (2015) also found that “social presence is associated with increased exemplification effects. (p. 100).”
Zillmann (2006) suggests that exemplification theory may be beneficial in promoting safety behaviors, arguing that base-rate information is often highly ineffective in conveying risks. Furthermore, “exemplifying imagery, mostly as a complement to informative text, has emerged as a powerful means of creating risk consciousness and of motivating protective and corrective action” (Zillmann, 2006, p. S232). Curiosity and information seeking may be fostered by emotional exemplification.
Arpan (2009) found that negative quotes, as exemplars, can increase perceptions of negative public opinion. Yu, Ahern, Connolly-Ahern, and Shen (2010) discovered that loss-framed exemplars may increase perceptions of severity over a gain-framed exemplar. Tran (2012) found that “multi-media additions can act as aspects of exemplars and influence the way users asses the reported issues” (p. 411), and “exemplar vividness acts as a moderator of exemplification effects” (p. 412). Sometimes words and images have equal influence on perceptions (Tukachinsky, Mastro, & King, 2011). Also, organizational messages do have the potential to counteract media exemplars (Spence et al., 2015).
Future research is warranted to form a wider understanding of exemplification effects. Zillmann (1999) reports that research needs to confirm the effectiveness of including identification of atypical exemplars and acknowledgement of lack of event statistics to combat inaccurate perceptions of exemplified events.
Zillmann (1999) also questions whether different presentational formats may exert varying perceptual influence. News may exert more influence than fiction, or fiction may exert more influence than news. Also, there may be a “hierarchy of compellingness” (p. 89) that can explain how different representations vary in influence. This also raises questions of other types of presentational formats such as comedy and edutainment, which are areas that are open for inquiry.
Furthermore, Zillmann (1999) raises the quandary of whether “mediated accounts of ‘reality’ are treated as equivalent with direct observation and experience or give lesser credence” (p. 89). Therefore, mediated and direct experience should be compared to determine how and when particular types of experience exert more influence. Additionally, individuals may “not be able to trace exactly how they learned about particular accounts of events” (Zillmann, 1999, p. 90); thus, they may not be able to differentiate source influence after enough time has passed. Researchers may want to explore whether, how, or when individuals are able to cognitively sort through a variety experiences and properly weight those experiences for accuracy and influence.
As Chaffee and Berger (1987) suggest, there are seven criteria for evaluating scientific theories: (a) explanatory power; (b) predictive power; (c) parsimony; (d) falsifiability; (e) internal consistency; (f) heuristic provocativeness; and (g) organizing power. Although exemplification theory scores well on all seven of these criteria, special attention is given here to four of them: three in which the theory has the most success and the one in which it scores the least.
First, exemplification theory provides a great deal of explanatory power. Chaffee and Berger define this as “the theory’s ability to provide plausible explanations for the phenomena it was constructed to explain” (p. 104). By relying upon several aspects of evolutionary and cognitive psychology mentioned above, exemplification theory provides a great deal of explanation for why some media portrayals stick with receivers long after being exposed to them and subsequently drive judgments about relative phenomenon. The theory also has a great range under which human communication and media effects can be studied. The current literature on exploring the theory has only examined a small range of possible topics and contexts that the theory is uniquely situated to address.
Second, predictive power is also high for exemplification theory. Suggesting the type of content that is most likely to be remembered allows predictions about the effects of these portrayals. This is one of the main reasons exemplification theory is well suited for use in risk and crisis communication: it allows one to predict responses to certain types of messages, thus predicting their applications and uses.
Third, organizing power of exemplification theory is strong. Chaffee and Berger suggest that “[u]seful theories not only generate new knowledge, they are able to organize extant knowledge” (p. 105). By combining aspects from evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, and media studies, exemplification theory also organizes extant knowledge in these fields together. Furthermore, exemplification theory may organize other theories under its umbrella. For example, cultivation theory (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorelli, 2009) is also a theory that suggests that media viewership has an impact on judgments about the social world around us. However, cultivation relies upon heavy exposure and multiple viewings of similar content and messages over time. Exemplification theory relates to judgements after individual, memorable viewings (perhaps similar to drench hypothesis; Greenberg, 1988), which cultivation does not. However, exemplification theory may account for cultivation effects as well, as heavier viewers of television are more likely to be exposed to a greater number of memorable exemplars. Future research and theorizing can examine more fully the similarities and differences between cultivation and exemplification theories. Indeed, Shrum’s (2009) work on cultivation theory might be relevant here as well. Exemplification theory may also explain many of the findings in studies examining information seeking/uncertainty reduction, framing theory, the extended parallel processing model (EPPM), theories of behavioral intentions, dual process cognitive theories, and fear appeals, All of these linkages are open for future research to explore.
The theory is also parsimonious; within its ability to explain various phenomena, it does so simply. The concepts within the theory are easy to understand, apply, and evaluate. At the same time, the theory is internally consistent; different aspects of the theory can be tested independently and the propositions within the theory compliment rather than contradict each other. Because the theory is simple, consistent, and testable, it lends itself well to the argument that it is falsifiable.
Of the seven criteria offered by Chaffee and Berger (1987), heuristic provocativeness is its weakest. For some reason, exemplification theory does not seem to have the research response as other media effects theories. For example, cultivation has been one of the most heuristically provocative theories (Bryant & Miron, 2004). Although exemplification theory is newer, exemplification theory was not included in the most recent edition (2009) of the widely used Media Effects book (after being included in the second edition in 2002). Hopefully, this article can serve as a guide to help increase the research that is conducted using exemplification theory.
Research on Exemplification Theory and Crisis/Risk Communication
Research on exemplification and risk and crisis communication is in its infancy; nonetheless, the research that does exist suggests that exemplars are important to consider in risk and crisis communication. As Zillmann (2006) states: “[m]ore specifically, the research concentrates on the formation of beliefs about threats to the welfare of others and ultimately of the threats to self, along with beliefs about effective and ineffective coping with these threats, on the basis of the exemplification of threats and their management in the informative and entertaining media of communication” (p. S221). Thus, exemplification theory is useful to consider when exploring risk and crisis communication. For example, exemplars can have an influence on risk perceptions and judgments (Hastall & Knoblach-Westerwick, 2013; Zillmann, Gibson, & Sargent, 1999). This influence is still prominent, even if base-rate information about the risk is provided (Gibson, Callison, & Zillmann, 2011; Zillmann & Brosius, 2000). These perceptions are thought to motivate action in protection against the threats through a process of emotional reactivity (Zillmann, 2006).
Two very common ways of exemplifying news stories are through pictures and quotes; these can add concrete, iconic, and emotionally arousing information to a story. Zillmann et al. (1999) provided readers with a magazine article about amusement park safety. Pictures were included, of either a safe coaster ride, an unsafe ride, neither, or both. Those seeing only the risky picture perceived lower safety of rides and more concern about ride safety. Gibson and Zillmann (2000) also found that including pictures of ticks in a news story increased risk estimates of contracting Lyme disease, and including photographs of tick-bite victims increased the perceived likelihood of contraction among those ethnicities represented in the picture.
Some evidence exists for a sleeper effect in exemplification and risk effects as well. Zillmann and Gan (1996, as discussed in Zillmann, 2006) found that when measured immediately after exposure, a news cast featuring both more and less threatening visuals caused relatively equal amounts of impact on perceptions of skin cancer from sunbathing. However, when measuring these outcomes again after two weeks, those who had seen the newscast with the more threatening visuals reported higher threats to others and to self as well as more intentions for protective actions. Thus, the impact of the stronger, more iconic exemplar, was “asleep” and was only found later. Issues surrounding sleeper effects are open for continued research, particularly in risk and crisis communication.
Quotations in a story can provide information from somebody directly related to a news story, even if that person is not representative of the norms associated with that story (i.e., base-rate information). Indeed, Gibson and Zillmann (1998) found that people are more influenced by direct quotations than paraphrased ones, suggesting the power that direct experience related through the direct quote has on an audience. In terms of risk/crisis communication, quotes also matter. Aust and Zillmann (1996) found that emotional testimonials from victims of salmonella poisoning had more of an impact on viewers’ threat perceptions toward developing such poisoning, both among the public and for one’s self, than non-emotional testimonials.
Exemplars can also motivate information seeking. Zillmann, Knobloch, and Yu (2001) found that threatening images arouse curiosity and lead to more careful reading of the articles they are contained in. This was similarly found online as well (Knobloch, Hastall, Zillmann, & Callison, 2003; Zillmann, Chen, Knobloch, & Callison, 2004). Lachlan, Westerman, and Spence (2010) found that women reported a greater desire to seek more information than men after viewing a news story about Hurricane Katrina.
Past research has also examined sex differences in response to exemplars. Crisis response in exemplification is motivated by emotional reactivity (Zillmann, 2006), and research has consistently shown that women have stronger emotional reactions to risk and harm than men do overall (Cantor, Mares, & Oliver, 1993; Jayaratne, Flanagan, & Anderman, 1996; Westerman, Spence, & Lachlan, 2009). However, women also have a higher tendency than men to channel their reactions into functional behaviors, whereas men are more likely than women to react with anger (Heath & Gay, 1997; Lachlan & Spence, 2007; Burke, Spence & Lachlan, 2008; 2010, Seeger, Vennette, Ulmer, & Sellnow, 2002; Spence, Westerman, Skalski, Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2006). Spence, Lachlan, Westerman, Lin, Harris, Sellnow, and Sellnow-Richmond (in press) have found that women express more desire to change behaviors associated with risks after viewing exemplified stories than do men.
Exemplification and Telepresence
One mechanism through which exemplars might impact judgments is through the experience of telepresence. When watching news reports of crisis events, feeling increased presence has been associated with increased exemplification effects. For example, Westerman, Spence, and Lachlan (2009) found that increased telepresence while watching a news story about Hurricane Katrina, in the form of spatial presence and perceptual realism, was associated with increased judgments of the average severity of hurricanes and an increased likelihood of hurricanes, as well as increased intentions to donate time to relief efforts for Katrina. However, a follow-up by Westerman, Spence, and Lachlan (2012) found none of these associations when using a news story about terrorism in Iraq. More recently, Westerman, Spence, and Lin (2015) found that spatial presence was positively related to perceived likelihood, severity and intentions to protect against outcomes associated with the news story (bed bugs). These researchers also investigated the impact of social presence and found the same positive associations as for spatial presence.
This Westerman et al. (2015) study also examined how some common types of exemplar portrayals might impact both spatial and social presence. Emotional quotes were associated with increased spatial presence, although the picture used was not. For social presence, there was a significant interaction effect between the picture and the quote. With no picture present, the quote led to higher social presence, but the quote had no significant effect when the picture was present. As suggested by these authors, it may be that people look for visual information first, and pay less attention to quotes when pictures are present. However, quotes might be even more impactful for social presence when they are attended to by an audience. This does go somewhat against the finding of Gibson and Zillmann (2000), who found that images led to more careful processing of text in a story about ticks and Lyme disease.
Combined, these findings suggest that exemplars might have increased impact on risk and crisis outcomes through the experience of telepresence. However, it may be that certain types of news stories and crises/risks show stronger effects (Lachlan et al., 2010; Westerman et al., 2012). This may be especially true if the story is one that an audience has a harder time relating to or if the behaviors measured are not things that people plan to/can do. More research is needed in this area to make even more definitive statements regarding the importance of telepresence.
Exemplars and Message Order Effects
Exemplified news portrayals can cause problems for an individual or organization. This extends the scope of exemplification past crisis communication and introduces the theory as one with application to the field of public relations. Crises that are created or intensified through the presentation of exemplars are particularly problematic; often, an individual or organization does not know how to respond to the exemplified portrayals. When an organization experiences a crisis, by definition, the event is newsworthy and may receive media coverage. As noted earlier, exemplars are often present in news coverage, and journalists use several literary tools to convey meaning. Although base-rate information can be presented, a news story can contain exemplars, which are the features of the story that are concrete, iconic, and emotionally arousing and these portrayals have the ability to drive the judgment and perceptions of the public in a pattern that is congruent with the distribution of the presented exemplars.
Given that the ability of exemplars to affect attitudes and behaviors is well documented, a series of studies set out to further examine exemplification processes and risk perceptions. Specifically, message-order effects and exemplification were examined with the goal of understanding whether abstract, nonarousing factual messages would be more or less effective if received by the public before or after an exposure to an exemplified message. This departed from much of the previous published research, which examined the presentation of factual, base-rate information contained in a separate message from the exemplars rather than within the same message or within a series of messages viewed in proximity.
In the first of these studies, participants were exposed to one of three print stimuli conditions (Spence et al., 2015). The order of the print stimuli was varied. An existing article about dangers of beef additives was used for the study. The beef additive had the name “Lean Finley Textured Beef” but was labeled “pink slime.” The original article already contained several exemplars; however, several additional exemplars were added to the original story. These exemplars included quotes and images, and were included to be graphic and emotional. They followed several of the well-researched effects noted earlier in this chapter. The point of adding more exemplars to the story was to create a condition that, theoretically would drive perceptions of severity, susceptibility and behavioral intentions in such a way that it would be difficult to change.
The second article used in the study was also taken from an actual U.S. government blog (USDA) and was designed to refute the exemplars presented in the first story, without actually referring to the story. Participants either read the article with exemplified portrayals alone or they read the exemplified article and the refutational blog in a specific order, depending on the condition. The reactions of the participants followed the distribution of the exemplars within the order of receiving the message. That is, in the conditions where respondents were presented with only the article containing exemplars, changes in the dependent variable followed the distribution of the exemplars, followed by the condition where respondents first received the exemplified article followed by the refutational blog post and finally the condition where respondents first were exposed to the refutational blog post followed by the exemplified article.
The results of that study indicated that exemplification effects could be minimized through the presentation of refutational messages or receiving messages that had the primary goal of combating the exemplars. Although conditions with the refutational news story did reduce exemplification effects, it is not known whether the findings produced enduring effects. Thus, future research should examine the role of sleeper effects in such circumstances.
Zillmann (2006) points out that one automatism of exemplification theory is the availability heuristic. Exemplars are less easily forgotten and more easily retrieved from memory to drive judgments. After a period of time, sleeper effects may take place, driving the retrieval of the “pink slime” exemplar and that may in turn drive judgments of the receiver, making the message ordering effects disappear.
The Spence et al., (2015) study provided a first step in examining the effectiveness of message ordering in reducing exemplification effects using print stimuli (Spence et al., 2015). However, the authors noted that the use of video responses in social media has not been extensively examined and a follow-up study was conducted to further explore exemplification theory and message ordering in another context.
In the follow-up study, four conditions were created again looking at the issue of beef ingredient additives (Spence et al., 2016). The respondents viewed either a televised news report on a video sharing site of the dangers of the beef additive, a response from the organization refuting the negative information, or both videos fully crossed based on condition. Results again outlined that participant perceptions and behavioral intentions follow the distribution of exemplars presented within the experimental conditions. Thus, receiving information that refutes potential exemplification effects before receiving an exemplified message has the ability to reduce the immediate consequences of reviewing the exemplars. The follow-up studied concluded that these findings also held true for issues of trust in an organization and perceptions of organizational reputation. These findings suggest that although exemplification theory is primarily thought of as a theory of media effects, it has implications for organizational communication, crisis and risk communication, and public relations and began the examination of the role of exemplars through social media (Spence et al., 2017) which is an area open for more research in exemplification, crisis, risk and public relations (Lin et al., 2016). Also, these findings bring exemplification theory into a discussion with inoculation theory (Ivanov, Pfau, & Parker, 2009). Although inoculation theory involves specific intention for message resistance, which was not of part studies by Spence et al. (2015; 2016) the conceptual similarities and scope of the theories warrants further investigations.
Future Directions in the Study of Exemplification Theory
Future directions for research and thinking on exemplification theory have been mentioned throughout this chapter; thus, they are not repeated here.
Anyone interested in learning more about exemplification theory would be well-served by looking at the work of Dolf Zillmann, cited numerous times in this chapter. Zillmann is a noted media psychologist who has formulated several theories relating to audience response to media.
The initial formulation of the full theory can be found in an article in the journal Media Psychology in 1999. This article was followed by a short book about the topic, coauthored with Hans-Bernard Brosius in 2000, called Exemplification in communication: The influence of case reports on the perception of issues and by a 2002 chapter in the second edition of the scholarly work Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Some more recent and specific thoughts on exemplification theory and its role in health/safety promotion can be found in a 2006 article published in the Journal of Communication. These sources provide a great overview of exemplification theory, evidence to back the theory up, and a list of the primary sources for that evidence. As with this article, they are intended to provoke thought regarding how to utilize this theory even more in risk and crisis communication.
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