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date: 17 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

Self-affirmation theory posits that people are motivated to maintain an adequate sense of self-integrity. It further posits that the self-system is highly flexible such that threats to one domain of the self can be better endured if the global sense of self-integrity is protected and reinforced by self-resources in other, unrelated domains. Health and risk communication messages are often threatening to the self because they convey information that highlights inadequacies in one’s health attitudes and behaviors. This tends to lead to defensive response, particularly among high-risk groups to whom the messages are typically targeted and most relevant. However, self-affirmation theory suggests that such defensive reactions can be effectively reduced if people are provided with opportunities to reinforce their sense of self-integrity in unrelated domains. This hypothesis has generated substantial research in the past two decades.

Empirical evidence so far has provided relatively consistent support for a positive effect of self-affirmation on message acceptance, intention, and behavior. These findings encourage careful consideration of the theoretical and practical implications of self-affirmation theory in the genesis and reduction of defensive response in health and risk communication. At the same time, important gaps and nuances in the literature should be noted, such as the boundary conditions of the effects of self-affirmation, the lack of clarity in the psychological mechanisms underlying the observed effects, and the fact that self-affirmation can be easily implemented in some health communication contexts, but not in others. Moreover, the research program may also benefit from greater attention to variables and questions of more direct interest to communication researchers, such as the role of varying message attributes and audience characteristics, the potential to integrate self-affirmation theory with health communication theories, and the spontaneous occurrence of positive self-affirmation in natural health communication settings.

Keywords: self-affirmation, self-integrity, threat, defensive response, message acceptance, intention, behavior, risk, cognitive dissonance, persuasion

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