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date: 20 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

Much current scholarship in the realm of information processing and decision making, particularly in the context of health risks, is derived from the logical-empiricist paradigm, involving a strong focus on cognition, routes of psychological processing of messages, and message heuristics. The message convergence framework (MCF), derived heavily from the writings of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, contributes to this body of literature by emphasizing the fact that people make decisions on health risks while being exposed to arguments from multiple sources on the same topic. The MCF offers an explanation for how people reconcile myriad messages to arrive at decisions. MCF differs from other theories of message processing because of its distinct and unique focus on arguments, messages, and the ways various arguments interact to create “convergence” in individuals’ minds. The MCF focuses on the ways that multiple messages converge to create meaning and influence in the minds of listeners. Convergence occurs when messages from multiple sources overlap in ways recognized by observers, creating perceptions of credibility and influencing their risk decisions. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explain that convergence occurs when “several distinct arguments lead to a single conclusion.” Individuals assess the strengths and weaknesses of the claims, and according to the scholars, the “strength” of the arguments “is almost always recognized.” Three key propositions focusing on message convergence articulate that audiences recognize message convergence, that they actively seek convergence in matters of concern, such as health risk, and that this convergence is potentially fleeting as new messages are introduced to the discussion.

Conversely, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca also discuss message divergence, and the rationale for wanting to intentionally create divergence among interacting arguments. Divergence is particularly appropriate in the realm of health and risk messages when scholars must challenge potentially harmful beliefs or correct misinformation. Some strategies for invoking divergence in include: dissociation, in which the speaker attempts to reframe the argument to create novel understandings; identification of the stock, hackneyed, and obsolete, where the speaker attempts to make existing claims appear commonplace or obsolete to the listener; refutation of fallacies, where the speaker points out the fallacious reasoning of the opponent; clash of interpretation, where the speaker publicly articulates that individuals have understood the convergence to mean different things; weakening through reaction, which involves the speaker’s attempting to incite a reactionary approach by the opponent; and finally, highlighting the consequence of invalid convergence, where the speaker describes the negative outcomes that may occur from following a false convergence based on incorrect information.

For message design, environmental scanning enables scholars and practitioners to assess the messages in a particular health-risk context. This assessment can assist practitioners in emphasizing or building convergence among reputable sources and in introducing divergence in cases where misunderstanding or a lack of evidence has contributed to an unproductive perception of convergence. Ultimately, the MCF can assist practitioners in scanning their health-risk environments for opportunities to establish or bolster convergence based on credible evidence and for introducing divergence to challenge inaccurate or misleading interpretations and evidence.

Keywords: risk, uncertainty management, decision making, arguments, message convergence, divergence, health and risk message design and processing

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