Message Convergence Framework Applied to Health and Risk Messaging
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.
Introduction to Risk and Uncertainty
Uncertainty can be conceptualized in a number of ways. On a basic level, uncertainty exists when a system or environment is unpredictable (Berger & Bradac, 1982): that is, some definitive information is unavailable to understand the past, to make sense of the present, or to predict the future. At times, ambiguity results from a paucity of information, but uncertainty also arises when people are unable to discern what some data mean. Empson (1966) articulated that ambiguity exists “when we recognize that there could be a puzzle as to what [is] meant, in that alternate views might be taken without sheer misreading” (p. x). By his logic, a system is uncertain to the extent that someone might have an alternate reading of the available data, even if you perceive only one possible meaning. The nature of uncertainty and its source are strongly dependent on the situation.
Uncertainty has been divided into aleatory and epistemic types. Aleatory uncertainty (from the Latin alea, referring to games of chance, like tossing dice, but also to risks and hazards) comes from inherent randomness due to chance. A prediction is a “best guess” given relevant information and recognizing aleatory uncertainty. The second type is epistemic uncertainty (from the Greek episteme, meaning knowledge). Epistemic ambiguity results from a lack of knowledge. Some people might choose not to talk about politics or religion with a stranger for fear that they might offend the other person. The stranger’s stance on these somewhat sensitive topics is unknown. Epistemic uncertainty is said to be reducible through the collection of more data or processing of more information. One could always ask a conversation partner what her position is on a subject before saying something provocative. Of course, systems rarely afford perfect information, and decisions are often required before all information is available, especially in dynamic systems where conditions do not stand still to be measured.
Risk is inherent to the human experience. Risk and uncertainty are always present in facing health challenges and making decisions. “Unlike most daily decisions, many health-care decisions have substantial consequences, and involve important uncertainties and trade-offs . . . With such complex decisions, it can be difficult to comprehend all options ‘in our heads,’ let alone to compare them” (Hunink et al., 2014, p. 3). For many individuals, health decisions are marked by varying levels of uncertainty. Mishel et al. (2009) claim, “Uncertainty is associated with stress and anxiety and can fluctuate across the illness trajectory, but is paramount during the diagnosis-treatment decision phase” (p. 353). Sellnow, Ulmer, Seeger, and Littlefield (2009) articulate that, in the absence of certainty, individuals “must calculate the likely outcome of our activities based on the available information” (p. 3). In situations marked by perceived risks, people often are faced with making decisions for their best interest and safety. For instance, persons diagnosed with certain acute conditions or chronic diseases must weigh the limitations and benefits of various treatment options (Hunink et al., 2014). Perpetually, individuals are placed in situations in which they must access information, analyze that information, and make decisions about future behavior.
Decision Making and Rationality
However, when making health-related decisions, individuals do not always make decisions in a logical or linear fashion. Complicating information processing and decision making in the midst of health-related uncertainty is the reality that individuals sometime make decisions in direct contradiction to recommendations of trained practitioners and experts. For instance, despite decades of research confirming the carcinogenic effects of tobacco on the body, it is estimated that 40 million Americans continue to smoke (CDC, 2016). Similarly, although numerous studies have revealed overexposure to UV rays through tanning beds is extremely detrimental to one’s health, many still willingly expose themselves to harmful rays (CDC, 2012). Additionally, despite clear recommendations from their physicians, patients do not always adhere to the advice of health-care providers (Lutfey, 2005). In other words, individuals sometimes engage in behaviors that stand in direct opposition to expert recommendations.
Similarly, although individuals typically rely on their previous experiences for making decisions in the midst of uncertainty, past experiences are not always sufficient or helpful in decision making. Weyman and Barnett (2016) explain, “People are prone to inductive errors, apparent in the tendency to apply (successful tried and tested) solutions to new contexts (whilst omitting to take account of important differences)” (p. 132). The decision of some Gulf Coast residents not to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina based on their personal histories of weathering hurricanes well in their homes reflects the problematic nature of applying previous experiences to different situations (Venette, 2008). Furthermore, Renn (2008) claims that individuals often rely on intuition for making decisions. The rationale and reasoning surrounding an individual’s processing of health and risk messages are still relatively unclear.
Much of the early thought on human decision-making capabilities was rooted in the belief in the rational actor. The concept of the rational actor, which hailed from Enlightenment thinkers, including Hobbes and Kant, views “humans as rational beings motivated by self-interest and consciously evaluating alternative courses of action” (Jaeger, Webler, Rosa, & Renn, 2001, p. 23). In other words, when faced with complex decisions, individuals will engage in formal logic and rationally sift through all options, process information in a systematic manner, and then make a rational decision.
Subsequently, decades of research in risk and decision making have moved beyond the understanding of a purist rational actor to understanding that individuals operate within a bounded rationality based on limited cognitive resources (Simon, 1955). Weyman and Barnett (2016) explain that Simon’s (1955) research on human decision making stands in opposition to the notion that, as rational beings, humans carefully consider all possibilities and then make their decisions. Instead of engaging in an extensive and exhaustive search of all potential options, individuals are more likely to make decisions that are satisfactory, rather than perfect.
Recent research indicates that the quick, satisfactory decisions made by rational beings are often based on quick mental shortcuts, or heuristics. Heuristics “draw, in large part, from prior experience and pattern recognition, allowing people to economically (in a cognitive sense) navigate their way around the world” (Weyman & Barnett, 2016, p. 132). According to Mishra (2014), “Most real-world decisions are made quickly with incomplete information. Therefore, any compelling theory of decision-making under risk must acknowledge the limitations of cognitive processing and available information” (p. 285). These limitations include factors like time, lack of information (epistemic uncertainty), and lack of other resources that would aid in making more complete decisions. Mishra (2014) explains that decision strategies like fast and frugal decision making are situated within an ecological rationality. “Ecologically, rational decision-making must necessarily be robust to allow for decision rules to be broadly used in multiple different environments” (p. 286).
Despite the move away from the paradigm of the rational actor, the pervasive understanding of behavior is still rooted in the logical empiricist paradigm concerning cognitive heuristics. Additionally, most theories related to persuasion and health behavior change are firmly situated within the logical empiricist paradigm (Glanz, Rimer, & Viswanath, 2008), and therefore maintain certain metatheoretical a priori beliefs of human behavior. Even though individuals may rely on heuristics when making decisions, they process information through various rules and processes.
The message convergence framework presents an alternative to existing frameworks for understanding rationality and decision making. For instance, the health belief model is a psychological theory rooted in cognition that assumes that when individuals perceive that they are susceptible to a threat and that the threat is adequately severe, individuals will take appropriate action to reduce their risks (Champion & Skinner, 2008). However, this assumption is rooted deeply in the logical empiricist paradigm, and there is little room to account for quasilogical reasoning. Similarly, in Witte’s (1992) extended parallel process model (EPPM) counterintuitive actions in response to perceived susceptibility are considered maladaptive responses. Finally, social judgment theory (Sherif, Sherif, & Nebergall, 1965) focuses on individuals’ acceptance of, rejection of, or nonreaction to, new information. Social judgment theory focuses on the interaction between a persuasive message and the individual’s previously established anchor point along the continuum of persuasion. The model leaves no room to consider the ways that either converging or diverging messages account for changes to an individual’s disposition. In other words, these frameworks are rooted in cognition, and they assume that perceptions of risk typically predicate some behavioral response by the individual. However, when considering quasilogical reasoning, this is not necessarily the case.
In stark contrast to logical-empirical assumptions about human decision making in the presence of risk, argumentation scholars Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) presented an alternative approach for understanding human reason and rationality. Rather than assume a causal explanation for information processing and subsequent human behavior, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) rejected the deterministic assumptions of logical empiricists by ascribing human processing and behavior to a more noncausal, less linear explanation (Polkinghorne, 1983). The message convergence framework (MCF) is derived from the writings of Perelman and Olbrecht-Tyteca (1969) concerning human reason and rationality. The MCF has been employed to understand the ways in which individuals manage and process arguments in the midst of heightened risk and uncertainty.
The Message Convergence Framework: Argumentation Origins
After years of attempting to counter the writings and understanding of reason held by the logical positivists, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca discovered “within the rhetorical tradition a vision of reason that could inform value choices and action” (Frank & Bolduc, 2010, p. 145). Their collaborative work, The New Rhetoric, was intended “to seek an expression of non-formal reason intended for a world of ambiguity and incomplete information” (Frank & Bolduc, 2010, p. 147). The scholars believed that the contemporary understandings of reason and rationality had been “unduly restricted by logical positivism” (p. 148), and they sought to explain the ways individuals make decisions when faced with multiple arguments. In trying to understand more fully the role of argumentation in decision making, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca believed that “an argument takes place in history with a specific purpose: to move the listener to make a decision, thereby creating in the audience the disposition to act” (Frank & Bolduc, 2004, p. 79).
The MCF not only is significant in explaining how people attempt to make sense of complex communication environments, but also is a way to better understand the complexities of human decision making and subsequent behavior. Individuals do not always act in rational or logical ways—not because they are intentionally refusing to follow advice from experts, or because they do not have a high need for cognition, but because people create their own rules and adhere to them in ways they believe are logical and reasonable (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969). Bolduc and Frank (2010) insist that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca were attempting to convey “the importance of argumentation as a counterpart to formal logic” (p. 309), and because they argue that argumentation runs counter to formal logic, “arguments that appeared sufficient to prompt a decision would, perhaps, not be valid for a different audience” (Bolduc & Frank, 2010, p. 318).
In trying to explain questions of rationality in human behavior, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) invoke the terms conviction and persuasion. They note that, when trying to convince an audience of an argument, “Every person believes in a set of facts, of truths, which he thinks must be accepted by every ‘normal’ person, because they are valid for every rational being” (p. 28). Conviction, therefore, assumes that individuals possess the qualities of a rational being (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969) and possess a common base of irrefutable facts (e.g., an object falls when dropped, people need food and water, or a transistor can be used to control the flow of electricity in a circuit). Persuasion, however, is not bounded by a formal system of reason. Instead, persuasion refers to argumentation scenarios that are temporally specific and are unbounded from formal rationality (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969). Amossy (2009) characterizes this approach as, “the discursive strategies through which people try to achieve some sort of consensus, allowing them to take common decisions and act together” (p. 153). Strangely, a person can be absolutely convinced of the efficacy of a particular course of action, but still might not be persuaded to act.
For instance, Venette (2008) discussed the behavior of coastal Mississippians who decided not to evacuate despite multiple warnings prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Specifically, residents read media reports that the storm would not be as bad as a prior hurricane and therefore judged not evacuating as “a relatively risk-free way to avoid the troubles of leaving” (Venette, 2008, p. 205). In this instance, residents may have been convinced through self-evident reasoning that avoiding the storm by evacuating was the rational thing to do, yet were not persuaded to act because of the specific context in which it was framed (personal or anecdotal experience with a prior hurricane).
According to Frank (2004), Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) were attempting to “inflect logic with rhetoric,” making it possible to understand the reason employed by individuals trying to best understand the arguments in a given situation. Frank states, “The quality of logic is ultimately dependent on the judgment of the audience” and not “an external and immutable set of standards” (2004, p. 271). Additionally, as Frank suggests, “Humans could also have different and conflicting interpretations of knowledge, and it could very well be that two people who disagree might both be right” (Frank, 2011, p. 247). As a somewhat risky example, global warming might be caused by human behavior and might be determined by natural processes.
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) also considered the role of the temporality of information, or in other words, the length of time individuals were able to observe the interaction of various messages. In risk communication, time is often a factor in the midst of an emergency or crisis. Similarly, time is also of concern in argumentation concerning the ability to recognize overlap among risk messages. Bolduc and Frank (2010) advocated that while “argumentation is never definitively completed, . . . the urgency of a decision may prevent [extensive] debate, even if uncertainty has not been overcome and the facets of the problem have not been examined in an exhaustive manner” (p. 318). Particularly in epidemics, in which decisions must be made quickly because the information is time-sensitive (Vos & Buckner, 2016), temporality may also affect the ways in which people observe the interaction of messages.
Rather than engaging in formal, logical reasoning, individuals take a more quasilogical approach to decision making, particularly in the presence of multiple risk messages. Although the MCF complements, rather than contradicts, the position that humans make decisions based on heuristic cues, the MCF is distinctly different, as the focus is not on cognitive shortcuts, but is situated in the ways in which individuals observe how messages intermingle and interact for the observer or audience.
Risk Assessments and Message Convergence
The process of making sense of acquired information requires an assessment of the information. According to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969), individuals actually observe the ways in which various arguments interact:
Arguments are in constant interaction at more than one level: interaction between various arguments put forward, interaction between the arguments and the overall argumentation situation, between arguments and their conclusion, and finally, between those arguments occurring in the discourse and those that are about the discourse. (p. 460)
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca claim that, “everyone recognizes that arguments do interact” (p. 471), and they note that such arguments are always separate and distinct. In the midst of heightened perceived risk, when multiple arguments are interacting, individuals look for the interplay of distinct arguments to manage their uncertainty, or the “convergent argument.” The intersection, or convergent argument, of distinct sources promotes clarity for audiences; individuals tend to seek such overlapping components of risk messages. When risk arguments interact, the observable areas of agreement “converge” in the mind of the observer to explain the risk (Anthony & Sellnow, 2011). Therefore, the MCF presupposes that arguments’ claims are strengthened through convergence, that the claims become stronger through the claims’ personal relevance to the audience, and that the convergence process continues as more information is disseminated (Anthony, Sellnow, & Millner, 2013).
Models of communicating risk to the public are changing from a univocal, one-shot transmission of a risk message to a dialogue-centered model where social, cultural, and political realities from multiple voices are considered in the construction of risk (Jackson & Cornell, 2013; Kasperson et al., 1988; Popova-Nowak & Cseh, 2015). Message convergence explains how audiences actively analyze the multiple voices for their overlapping areas of agreement in order to construe meaning (Venette, 2008; Willard, 1979).
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) note that arguments are not static but are instead in constant interaction with each other. Arguments often interact during public discourse and debate. During the multivocal process of interaction, audiences observe the individual messages and the ways in which they interact with other messages and arguments swirling in the communication environment. Particularly for topics in which multiple viewpoints and opinions exist, the landscape of messages is varied and diverse, likely containing many competing and contradictory messages. Observers typically consider and compare the points of similarity among arguments because they are unlikely to reason that some sources are completely correct while others are completely incorrect (Anthony & Sellnow, 2016).
Individuals may identify the overlap of arguments through the active pursuit of information (Ulmer, Seeger, & Sellnow, 2007) or through passive encounters with messages. Anthony and Sellnow (2016) explain that a “closer consideration of arguments by individuals may heighten the interaction” (p. 251). Therefore, the interaction of messages will likely become more obvious and salient to the individual as she focuses more intently on the intermingling of arguments. Convergence, according to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969), promotes argument association, in which the construal process works to “bring separate elements together and allow us to establish unity among them” (p. 190); construal enables individuals to organize arguments and evaluate them either “positively or negatively” (p. 190).
To date, the MCF has been directly applied to various contexts of health and risk communication. Specifically, the MCF has been employed to examine how individuals understand and process terrorist hoaxes (Venette & Ulmer, 2008) and how victims of Hurricane Katrina made sense of varied and competing information in the wake of extensive destruction (Anthony & Sellnow, 2011). The MCF guided research concerning medical decision making by obstetricians engaging in delivery decisions with patients (Anthony & Sellnow, 2016) and explained the relationship between interacting messages and behavioral intentions for women considering their susceptibility to human papillomavirus (HPV; Head, 2013). Additionally, the MCF was used to examine the ways parents and caregivers make nutrition decisions in the midst of a food contamination crisis (Anthony et al., 2013). Finally, the MCF was employed to help people more fully understand the communicative and policy acts following the L’Aquila, Italy, earthquake in 2009.
Theoretical Propositions of MCF
Pluralism is integral to the MCF. Without pluralism, none of the propositions of MCF can emerge. Pluralism can exist in both information and sources. Perelman (1979) explains that pluralism “refrains from granting to any individual or group, no matter who they are, the exorbitant privilege of setting up a single criterion for what is valid and what is appropriate” (p. 71). In the MCF, pluralism is of utmost importance because it reveals that no one source or argument can trump others. When pluralism is inhibited, some messages may overshadow others, and some arguments may not be permitted to enter the communication environment. Thus, excluding information introduces epistemological uncertainty and increases the likelihood of error. Acknowledging plurality is perhaps the most important initial step in the process of eventually recognizing message convergence. As multiple forms of information are shared by multiple sources over time, the convergence process begins.
Seeger and Sellnow (2016) explain that pluralism should be “most pronounced when there is a lack of information or inadequate communication from prominent sources” (p. 148). For example, when organizations like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration serve as sources of safety information, they function best when they take into account multiple points of view from a range of sources. Drastic oversights, such as the failure to acknowledge the level of contamination in the Flint, Michigan, water supply, can be avoided by attending to messages from multiple sources. Local physicians had evidence of rising blood lead levels in their patients, particularly children (Sturgeon, 2015). Had the messages expressed by these physicians been fully considered, the impact of the Flint disaster could have been reduced.
Additionally, Venette, Sellnow, and Lang (2003) explain that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) failure to discover catastrophic tread separation in Firestone tires on Ford Explorer vehicles was largely due to a lack of plurality. NHTSA’s ability to identify the crisis was limited by “its decision to abandon close working relationships with auto repair garages. Previously, NHTSA was able to gather useful data concerning repair rates and possible defects before a national crisis developed” (Venette, Sellnow, & Lang, 2003, p. 230). Director Bailey acknowledged that abandoning a system that encouraged plurality resulted in ineffective information processing and decision making.
Proposition One: Convergence in the Claims Made by Distinct Sources
Anthony, Sellnow, and Millner (2013) established three central propositions of the MCF based on Perelman and Olbrecht-Tyteca’s seminal scholarship. First, Anthony and colleagues claim that when individuals observe consistency among messages, they will likely become more aware or more attuned to the consistencies. For example, if a person recently diagnosed with cancer is searching for information about his condition, any perceived consistencies among the various information sources he encounters will be perceived as significant to him. More specifically, Anthony and Sellnow (2016) revealed that, when trying to make delivery decisions with their patients, obstetricians sought recurring themes or overlapping information. The physicians claimed that any similarity in recommendations for treating their patients enabled them to move forward with confidence in their decision. In other words, the strength of the claim increases as individuals perceive that it is echoed, even if only in part, by other sources. Thus, for proposition one, Anthony et al. (2013) state, “convergence in the claims made by distinct sources, be it partial or complete, increases the strength of those claims” (p. 349).
Proposition Two: Significant Points of Convergence for the Audience
The second central proposition of the MCF focuses on the concept of personal relevance and subsequent motivation for seeking information. Existing scholarship reveals that there is a positive relationship between the perception of risk and the experience of uncertainty. Perceptions of risks are typically associated with heightened levels of uncertainty. When encountering such perceptions of personal risk and susceptibility, individuals must determine if (a) they desire additional information, (b) how much information is needed, and (c) what sources of information might help them make sense of their exposure and susceptibility to risk.
Scholars have long put to rest the notion that individuals are automatically inclined to actively gather information when managing risk-induced uncertainty (Afifi & Morse, 2009; Babrow, 2001; Brashers, 2001). An individual’s approach to managing uncertainty is predicated upon the individuals’ appraisal of the risk. If, for instance, a person perceives the diagnosis of a particular chronic disease to be especially threatening, then she may not strive to reduce her uncertainty in an effort to maintain some sense of security against the imposing threat. Alternatively, if another individual perceives the delivery of that same diagnosis as a chance for engendering major life changes, she may seek information to reduce her uncertainty, thereby viewing the same risk as an opportunity, rather than a danger.
Individuals who are motivated to intentionally seek information based on their personal risk assessment will engage in much closer scrutiny of the ways in which arguments interact. If people perceive themselves to be highly susceptible or perceive that a risk is particularly relevant to them, they will be more likely to seek information and convergence (Spence et al., 2005), and they will perceive any overlapping messages as more significant than individuals who do not believe they are susceptible to the risk.
Additionally, when attempting to understand how women make decisions about protecting themselves against HPV, Head (2013) assessed various message characteristics that may have influenced participants’ behavioral intentions. She determined that women were more likely to follow behavioral recommendations when participants recognized they were repeated across multiple sources. Source credibility and argument strength alone had little bearing on promoting behavioral intentions to follow guidelines for preventing HPV. However, participants who recognized that messages were overlapping were more likely to report their likelihood to follow the recommended guidelines. Head states that participants’ “likelihood to follow a source’s recommendation were almost fully explained by message convergence” (p. 102). Thus, for proposition two, Anthony et al. (2013) state, “the more significant the points of convergence are to the audience, the stronger the claims” are in the construal process (p. 350).
Proposition Three: Reflections on the Perceived Strength of Convergence
The third proposition of the MCF is predicated upon the notion that, as more sources weigh into the communication environment and newer information interacts with existing arguments over time, the convergence perceived by the observer may morph into something different from its original form. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca articulate that the argumentative situation “shifts each moment as argumentation proceeds” (p. 460), revealing that convergence too may shift. For example, following a food contamination crisis, the initial crisis narrative will likely change greatly over time as additional sources and more recent information enter the crisis narrative. Because convergence is more likely to shift, rather than to remain the same over time, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) advise that three “tensions” may arise as the perception of convergence evolves.
First, if individuals perceive that the initial convergence no longer exists, they will typically reject the initial construction in favor of a more apparent and recent convergence. For instance, following Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast residents encountered many arguments from various sources concerning where and how they could get help. Amid the chaos of the weeks following the storm, residents were assisted in finding convergence by local radio stations, which attempted to dispel rumors as well as to find accurate answers. Once additional sources weighed into the greater conversation, residents had a better understanding of the disaster recovery situation, and a revised convergence emerged, replacing earlier perceptions of convergence (Anthony & Sellnow, 2011). Additionally, Anthony et al. (2013) found that, in the midst of a food contamination crisis, participants revealed they would often wait before they made any major decisions in an effort to observe the arguments and to assess if or how the perceived convergence would shift.
Second, much of the significance of message convergence rests in the belief that convergence occurs spontaneously. However, if individuals observe the interactions of messages and believe that the seemingly organic alignment of messages was intentionally created or contrived, the perceived overlap of messages is determined to be phony, and therefore the impact of the convergence is lost. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca aptly explain the point in this way: “Convergence can also cause mistrust; it may be feared that the new elements were arranged specifically in order to bring about the convergence” (1969, p. 473). For instance, in the case of a government regime that exerts control by censoring certain websites or silencing any sources that disagree with its agenda, individuals may perceive that some convergence is contrived or false. If only privileged voices are allowed to speak, and if those voices “coincidentally” all repeat the same thing, then it is likely that individuals will reject the perceived convergence as faulty: “because of the distrust felt for excessive coherence, certain measure of incoherence is taken as a sign of sincerity and seriousness” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, p. 473). In the midst of perilous times, particularly when multiple explanations should exist, complete convergence among all sources would likely appear inauthentic to the observer.
Finally, Herovic et al. (2014) elaborate on proposition three, and caution that at times, because of people’s dispositions, they are less likely to contest the perception of perfect convergence. For instance, if people very badly want something to be true, they are less likely to question complete convergence. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) claim that the only way individuals will perceive this convergence as inauthentic is with the eventual recognition that their enthusiasm for a convenient resolution blurred their ability to comprehend the complexity of the situation. For example, Herovic et al. (2014) found that residents of L’Aquila, Italy, were able to accept the poorly documented earthquake forecasting because all diverging opinions toward the ruling were omitted from reports and not presented to the public. If, however, observers can dismiss their zeal for a simplistic or favorable answer, they are able to see “a reduction of the strength of arguments that culminate in theories or forecasts corresponding too closely with desires” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, pp. 473–474). Thus, proposition three states, “The strength of convergence may be modified as a result of the reflection about this very convergence” (Anthony et al., 2013, p. 350).
Creating Divergence: A Fourth Proposition
In addition to explaining how interacting arguments can converge and increase in their strength or persuasive impact, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) also identify a series of strategies for creating divergence in interacting arguments. Divergence in this context occurs when understanding or interpretation of reality parts from a common point. Certainly, interacting arguments can diverge naturally at times when uncertainty is high and many plausible interpretations of an issue are shared widely in a free and open marketplace of ideas. For example, two people in a debate might agree that the climate is warming, but diverge concerning the cause of the change in climate. Divergence can also be used strategically to promote adherence to an argument. When interacting arguments begin to coalesce, those seeking to contest this convergence have a wide array of strategies at their disposal. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca describe six strategies for reducing the strength of positively interacting arguments: dissociation; identification of the stock, hackneyed, and obsolete; refutation of fallacies; clash in interpretation; weakening through reaction; and highlighting the consequences of invalid convergence.
“Dissociation of notions brings about a more or less profound change in the conceptual data that are used as the basis of arguments” (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, p. 412). Rather than merely disconnecting ideas or messages that seem to converge, dissociation creates a “profound change” in, for example, perceptions of reality. Central to dissociation is the division of a concept into two parts, allowing those in opposition to a converging interpretation to recreate the concept in a way that is consistent with their view. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explain, “the effect of determining reality is to dissociate those appearances that are deceptive from those that correspond to reality” (p. 416). Overall, those seeking to supplant views of convergence with divergence can do so by actively dividing and challenging existing perceptions through dissociation.
Several forms of division are available to those seeking to dissociate the convergence of interacting arguments. For example, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) observe when dissociating interacting arguments, divisions like the speaker versus the message, the universal audience versus particular audiences, and an argument’s validity versus its effectiveness are particularly useful. One can separate the appeal of a message by claiming that its attraction is based on the skills of the speaker rather than the soundness of the claim. With regard to audience, one can claim that, although a particular audience sees a form of convergence, that convergence would not stand the test of a universal audience—an abstract conceptualization of an audience that is “untouched by the prestige attached to the speaker” (p. 468). The division of validity and effectiveness seeks to clarify that an audience’s response to an argument and that argument’s validity are quite separate. In fact, an audience may see a form of convergence that, when analyzed more closely, is not valid.
Identify the Stock, Hackneyed, and Obsolete Arguments
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) explain that casting arguments as obvious, predictable, or superficial can diminish their strength. They note that convergence built on obvious claims is seen as “old stuff” and banal (p. 468). An audience’s anticipation of an argument can occur in several ways. First, an argument can be so obvious or routine that it is completely foreseeable. Second, an argument can be made so often that it becomes standard, and at the same time boring, mundane, and lackluster. Additionally, some arguments, though still employed, can become obsolete in the presence of more recent information.
Individuals seeking to refute the strength of converging arguments can accept that convergence exists on an issue, but simultaneously insist that the convergence is based on obsolete evidence and claims. Obsolescence can be established through such strategies as claiming the converging arguments are based on outdated evidence that is no longer relevant or by insisting that the convergence is so obvious and superficial that it is not compelling. For example, new research renders old notions of exercise standards obsolete by indicating that just 10 minutes a day of walking or moderate exercise can improve cardiovascular health (Church, Earnest, Skinner, & Blair, 2007).
Refutation of Fallacies
Divergence can also be generated by classifying the claims that form a converging argument into a category seen as “overbold” or fallacious, and then refuting them (p. 469). Identification of a fallacy ultimately depends on the identification of a flaw in reasoning, and in the context of convergence, multiple claims may be based on problematic logic. Although the sources converge, the appeal to authority (citing sources that are unidentified or unqualified) undermines the argument. Many well-understood categories for fallacies of reasoning exist. For example, opponents can claim that the established convergence is based on such common fallacious arguments as hasty generalizations, an either/or fallacy, or a false-cause fallacy (Verderber, Sellnow, & Verderber, 2015). Hasty generalizations occur when the conclusions provided outpace the evidence available. An either/or fallacy occurs when a speaker claims there are only two options for interpretation when in fact many alternatives are actually present. False-cause claims occur when events and circumstances are attributed as a cause when in fact there may be no substantial relationship. By publicly claiming that converging arguments are derived through the application of a known form of fallacious argument, opponents call for a reinterpretation that ultimately dismisses convergence.
Clash in Interpretation
Divergence can also be generated by classifying the claims that form a converging argument into a category and then refuting them (p. 469). Direct refutation in this context often targets the links that point to convergence. In other words, if the apparent convergence is derived from the agreement of multiple sources, providing a legitimate argument that these particular sources do not agree would decrease the strength of the original premise. Second, an interlocutor can weaken a supposed congruence by providing an invalidating example. An opponent could add evidence that would nullify the perception of convergence.
Finally, two people may observe the same interacting arguments and perceive that they are positively converging. However, they may arrive at very different understandings of the convergence. This ‘clash in interpretation’ is apparent in President Barack Obama’s commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. In describing people’s interpretations of various social issues, the president spoke the following words:
The soldier and the lawyer may love this country with equal passion, and yet reach very different conclusions on the specific steps needed to protect us from harm. The gay activist and the evangelical pastor may both deplore the ravages of HIV/AIDS, but find themselves unable to bridge the cultural divide that might unite their efforts. Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life; but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships might be relieved (The White House, 2009).
This excerpt in his address acknowledges the potential for a clash in interpretation. Individuals may observe the same arguments and yet reach a very different conclusion.
Weakening Through Reaction
Arguments can be strengthened or weakened simply by the way that people react to it. A confirming “amen” or the rapping of knuckles on a desk lends support to a position. Conversely, a shout of “shame” or the shaking of one’s head can undermine the strength of a claim. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) suggest that divergence can be created or implied through paralinguistic or nonverbal reactions. These responses might come from any of the advocates or from the audience. Ultimately, a negative reaction shows that a suggested convergence is not as strong as the speaker makes it seem.
Strategically, those disputing convergence can also create perceptions of divergence by inciting defensiveness in their opponents. If those advocating convergence respond to criticism of their position with defensiveness, they may appear to be on “shaky ground” and “doubtful of the worth of [their] own arguments” (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, p. 471). For example, speakers show defensiveness by anger in response to an attack, by resorting to “diversions,” or by asking “questions instead of replying” (p. 470).
Highlight the Consequences of Invalid Convergence
Challenging convergence implies that the claims are “deserving of consideration” because of the consequences resulting from their acceptance (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, p. 470). Accordingly, there are two considerations that must be taken into account when challenging convergence. First, persons objecting to convergence must determine whether drawing attention to the claims warrants the fact that the attempts at refutation will establish the importance of the apparent convergence. In other words, challenging the perceived convergence will draw attention to the very convergence one is attempting to reject. For example, bringing attention to a false convergence that indoor tanning is a great way to improve one’s levels of vitamin D will, in fact, draw attention to misinformation about health benefits of tanning beds.
More directly to dissociation, if an opponent of converging arguments chooses to publicly refute the convergence, her or his objective is to “make a sufficiently low estimate” of the converging argument so that the “refutation is strong enough” to persuade the public against the perceived convergence (p. 470). To do so, opponents often stress the unfortunate consequences of acting on the perceived convergence. The advocate is arguing that, if a convergence were true, then some greater narrative would need to be abandoned or some other apparent points of convergence would be jeopardized. For instance, if individuals perceive that a new fad diet pill is becoming wildly popular in the United States, they may believe that trying the drug is a good idea. However, if the drug is not approved by the FDA and may cause disastrous side effects, the consequence of taking the drug would likely be worse than the consequence of not taking it.
The perception of converging arguments is naturally susceptible to decay, as is described in the third proposition. Arguments are renewed, re-evaluated, extended, or disproven as new evidence is introduced into the public discussion. However, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca also include strategies for divergence—for intentionally challenging the perception that arguments are truly converging.
Message Convergence and Message Construction
The MCF has practical implications for the development of health and risk communication messages. Because of its focus on how individuals observe the overlap and interplay of messages when making sense of risk and uncertainty, the MCF supplements current risk and health communication theory that can inform health communication scholars in designing messages. The MCF can be used in developing messages to bring about convergence toward a desired point, and in developing messages that promote divergence to challenge a potential undesired convergence.
Health communication campaigns afford practitioners the opportunity to fill knowledge gaps, particularly when information campaigns take an ecological approach (Moran et al., 2016). Before embarking on message design, health communication practitioners should engage in environmental scanning (Coombs, 2015). Environmental scanning can provide an understanding of the messages that exist in the broader communication landscape. In particular, environmental scanning can assist practitioners in identifying where an audience perceives convergence or divergence. Such analysis helps communicators avoid message–need incongruities (when information provided is not the information needed by an audience; Venette, 2004). If an audience already is persuaded through convergence that food safety is important, but fails to see consistency in messages about how to avoid contamination, additional messages about the significance of the topic are not needed and might be counterproductive. Effective environmental scanning would reveal that emphasis should be placed on promoting consistencies in recommendations from various credible sources.
Environmental scanning enables message designers to identify issues in which there may be sufficient information, but there also may exist multiple explanations, competing information, and vigorous debate among plausible causes. Scanning the communication environment reveals messages researchers or practitioners will want to affirm and messages they may want to refute through message design. Developing messages that directly refute or contradict incorrect information may enable researchers to diverge from incorrect information. For instance, in risk communication, there is a general understanding among expert scientists and the public that the earth is currently experiencing a climate change. However, there is much disagreement concerning the explanations for climate change among laypersons and politicians. In situations like this, risk communicators should scan the environment for beliefs and understandings that exist, and then design and develop messages that echo the understandings they want to convey to the public. In that way, communicators can promote convergence for a very public issue about which there is still much debate and discourse.
Seeking Consistency: Establishing Convergence
When creating messages for the public concerning health risks, agencies and other organizations should ensure they develop multiple messages and that those messages exhibit substantial overlap with one another. For instance, Head (2013) revealed that young women were more likely to trust information concerning HPV prevention if it was presented by multiple sources (e.g., mother and physician). Creating messages that resonate with one another, even across agencies, is crucial for convergence. Creating messages that complement those of other agencies or organizations, within multiple channels, promotes the likelihood of convergence.
The MCF serves as a theoretical underpinning for many of the recommendations currently made in risk and crisis communication practice. For instance, many scholars of risk communication argue that organizations must partner with other organizations and coordinate the messages for the public (Covello, 2003; Seeger, 2006; Veil, Buehner, & Palenchar, 2011). Specifically, entities should engage in risk-planning decisions with other credible organizations to ensure consistency across messages. With this recommendation, convergence among messages from both the CDC and the FDA, for example, would coordinate, and would likely be more meaningful for observers of the interaction. Specifically, Seeger (2006) states, “Coordinating messages enhances the probability of consistent messages and may reduce the confusion the public experiences. Consistency of message is one important benchmark of effective crisis communication” (p. 240). Although coordinating messages and efforts is not a novel claim, the MCF provides the theoretical foundation for doing so. Organizations and agencies that coordinate their messages promote message convergence for the public.
Additionally, Covello (2003) recommends that when there are inconsistencies in information, or information that appears to be incomplete, it should be pointed out to the public. Signifying the areas in which there are controversies or disagreements may entice individuals to look for potential overlap or divergence among disparate sources. Communicators should not only accept that information exists in the public sphere that runs counter to their preferred positions, but additionally they actually can make direct reference to the legitimate clashing of ideas. Acknowledging the controversy helps build credibility and goodwill, and it also promotes more complete understanding of an issue. Similarly, Seeger (2006) claims that communicators should be willing to accept ambiguity and uncertainty rather than claim certainty in the midst of a public health risk. Accepting ambiguity promotes a communication environment conducive to message convergence that avoids the pitfall of appearing disingenuous or banal.
Countering Arguments: Creating Divergence
To this point, here are detailed examples and strategies for health and risk communication practitioners wishing to employ the MCF in their research.
Message designers can best harness the strategy of dissociation by distancing themselves from some converging arguments and by developing messages that attempt to reconstruct or reframe the problem at hand. For instance, Shelley (2012) describes the problem of trying to ameliorate the major public health crisis of obesity. He states, “With competing theories about the root causes of obesity, and many plausible although limited solutions being proffered, the resulting ‘noise’ renders it nearly impossible to determine what policies would be most effective” (p. 1093). Shelley argues further that the competing theories create a “cacophony” of policy and misinformation surrounding the causes of obesity. He suggests reframing the obesity public health crisis as “caloric overconsumption” in an effort to remove any confusion from the issue. In doing so, he argues that the perception should be recreated in a way to diverge from policy debates surrounding the public health crisis. Reframing is a strategic way to avoid the “baggage” associated with a controversial topic. Thus, individuals engaging in dissociation may want to reframe the argument by distancing themselves from some messages they perceive to be converging.
Identify the Stock, Hackneyed, and Obsolete Arguments
If casting arguments as obvious, predictable, or superficial can diminish their strength, two general strategies are available that can be effective in undercutting an argument. First, when a counterpoint currently exists that offers insufficient or ineffective information, a practitioner should explain its inadequacy. A transformative explanation (Rowan, 1988) is a particular messaging strategy applicable to such contexts. This approach has four steps. The new message should make reference to the “false” argument in an unbiased manner. For example, “Many people believe that receiving an influenza shot can give someone the flu.” Next, the communicator should note the apparent correctness of the misinformation. The message might state, “It is true that some patients may experience soreness and a slight fever which might be confused with the flu.” After presenting the position in way that does not evoke a defensive response, the message should then point out the inadequacies of this position. Continuing the example, “Influenza inoculations given through injection use dead virus, and so infection is not possible.” The message should then provide a reason why the new alternative explanation is better than maintaining the previous belief. “Using a live virus is unnecessary for this type of inoculation. The body’s natural defense mechanism responds to the presence of dead virus by makings antibodies, just as if one has been exposed to the flu, without the risk of catching the disease.”
Second, savvy communicators should attempt to preempt obsolete arguments. When creating a campaign about childhood vaccinations, a communicator would be aware that a common antivaccination position is the risk of autism. Divergence can occur in this context by pointing out, in advance, that the connection to autism has long been debunked, and thus the audience should not be misled by outdated information that is frequently presented by people who are not credible. If the audience has been made aware that claims linking autism and vaccinations are not credible and are obsolete, then the argument will likely be seen as divergent from expert information if it does arise.
The March of Dimes’ Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait campaign provides another excellent example of describing some arguments as obsolete. Since the mid-1990s, early-term elective inductions (inductions before 39 weeks) have been on the rise. For decades, some patients and providers advocated for induction for the sake of convenience based on the belief that there were few actual consequences for the child (Vos, Anthony, & O’Hair, 2014). However, researchers began to reveal that early deliveries had the potential for extremely negative health consequences for babies, including underdeveloped brains and respiratory systems. In response to these findings, the March of Dimes created messages to directly discount pervasively held beliefs about the length of pregnancy. Messages specifically focused on potential negative health outcomes and claimed that any elective inductions before 39 weeks were bad for babies and mothers alike.
Refutation of Fallacies
Refuting fallacies requires creating messages that directly contradict the faulty information of the opponent. For instance, whether faulty logic has been intentionally or unintentionally employed, message designers must point out any faulty logic behind the claims. However, simply naming the fallacy might not be effective. If an argument follows the form of “this health message comes from a government agency, and the government is not trustworthy,” a person might deduce that this statement is based on a fallacy of division. Identifying the fallacy may be insufficient for an audience to reject the claim outright. Thus, additional explanation of how this argument fails may be necessary.
Refutation of fallacies also includes attacking arguments that are manipulative. A prime example of manipulation is the marketing of herbal supplements to the general public. Morris and Avorn (2003) claim that particularly online, herbal supplements are sold to consumers with promises far beyond what they could ever feasibly do to improve a person’s health. Furthermore, the herbal supplements have the potential to cause severe interactions with prescription drugs. Physicians and pharmacists must do their best to overcome the fallacious claims surrounding herbal supplements in an effort to keep the public safe. Employing sound logic and research when countering the manipulation strategy will assist researchers in overcoming illogical arguments. Additionally, if information disseminated is intended to mislead or misguide the public, organizations should try to reframe the message while providing messages of efficacy for members of the public (Sellnow, Littlefield, Vidoloff, & Webb, 2009). In this way, message designers should communicate response efficacy and self-efficacy in order to overcome the offending fallacious convergence.
Clash in Interpretation
Another approach for engendering divergence is to challenge the claims that convergence exists on a certain topic or issue. Again, the public health crisis concerning the supposed link between vaccines and autism serves as an excellent example of a clash through refutation. A groundswell of individuals voiced their beliefs in a direct link between autism and vaccines and then grew by great numbers following Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent article in the Lancet (Godlee, Smith, & Marcovitch, 2011). Participants in the “antivax” movement argued that clearly the link must exist because all evidence, including Wakefield’s argument, Jenny McCarthy’s book, and various Internet sites and blogs, pointed to the fact that vaccines were causing autism. However, public health officials across the globe, and others, vehemently argued that no such agreement of sources existed. In fact, many argued that Wakefield’s research was not only fraudulent, but could also be dangerous. Public health officials have argued that a serious risk of losing herd immunity against measles, mumps, and rubella exists if fewer people are vaccinated. Health communication scholars should be alert and should be willing to engage in public discourse against groups and movements that claim the presence of convergence when convergence does not exist or is based on information that is invalid.
Additionally, two individuals may observe the same arguments and perceive the arguments as converging. However, the individuals may then arrive at very different interpretations of the perceived convergence. For example, two people who observe arguments concerning a current curriculum being taught in the public school system may arrive at very different conclusions concerning the future of education. One may state that interacting arguments reveal state testing is bad for students while the other may believe that current subjects being taught are useful, and teachers must continue to teach those subjects more rigorously to improve education. The presentation of alternative understandings of convergence can engender divergence among various audiences.
Weakening Through Reaction
Those who claim convergence in cases where the intersecting arguments are suspect often respond defensively when publicly challenged. Drawing attention to this defensiveness can diminish the opponent’s credibility. For example, Schwartz and Kempner (2015) claim that a pervasive argument among parents who do not want their daughters to receive the HPV vaccine is that the vaccine is targeted toward young women and that receiving the vaccine will result in their daughters’ exhibiting more sexual promiscuity. Because the virus can be spread without sexual intercourse, these reasons could be viewed by some as defensive and illogical, thereby diminishing their credibility.
Additionally, at times it is appropriate for communicators to display emotion. Context-sensitive use of emotion can actually enhance the credibility of the speaker. For example, when communicating about an acute public health crisis that may have already cost people’s lives, a spokesperson should appear empathetic and should also visually and vocally demonstrate the upsetting nature of the crisis, rather than appearing to be an uncaring robot. In addition, if an individual or group is spreading misinformation about how to deal with the crisis, well-targeted disappointment and anger might be appropriate. In short, an emotional reaction helps to place emphasis on arguments as they unfold.
Highlight the Consequences of Invalid Convergence
In terms of message design, health communication scholars need to determine if the faulty convergence is worth discussing in a public forum. Some undesirable health beliefs may disappear on their own without the need to draw additional attention to incorrect information. However, if the wrong information has the potential to cause a public health problem, scholars should sufficiently highlight the adverse outcomes that may occur if individuals embrace and follow a faulty convergence.
For instance, there has been a great surge in the use of e-cigarettes over the last few years, particularly for the use of smoking cessation. While many individuals believe that e-cigarettes do not pose the same health concerns as smoked cigarettes, much research has revealed that they are by no means safe. However, many former cigarette smokers and e-cigarette enthusiasts maintain that “vaping” is much safer than smoking traditional cigarettes (Volesky et al., 2016). Many even maintain that recreational vaping is safe. However, as more research reveals that e-cigarettes may also have negative, even carcinogenic, effects on the human body and the environment (Lerner et al., 2015), the faulty claims of safety surrounding vaping should be countered. When highlighting the consequences of invalid convergence, health message designers would do well to draw attention to the faulty evidence on which these claims are built and discuss the real health risks of vaping. In other words, message designers must debunk the false claims and describe the dangers associated with following the faulty convergence.
Although the MCF uniquely affords scholars the ability to consider human rationality and decision making from a quasilogical perspective, the framework is not without limitations. First, because the MCF is a causal approach to understanding decision making, it is difficult for scholars to determine the effects of individual messages on the construal process. In other words, the actual impact of individual messages on individuals’ decision making is difficult to measure. For instance, if a person is already convinced that she needs to receive a flu shot, and then she encounters additional messages converging around the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu, how much more “convinced” is she after encountering subsequent messages? It is unclear whether or not additional converging messages have persuaded her any further in her decision to obtain a flu shot. Measuring an individual’s movement in persuasion or the influence resulting from additional converging messages is incredibly difficult. For instance, determining the persuasive impact of the fourteenth converging message versus the fifteenth converging message seems nearly impossible.
A second limitation is the validity of information and sources individuals seek. Although states of convergence or divergence are more likely to occur when individuals encounter multiple arguments, if the information is coming from only very biased sources (e.g., conspiracy theorist sources), then, unfortunately, people’s understanding of the issue is no better than it was before. Simply encountering more messages about a topic, particularly if the information encountered is faulty, does not necessarily mean the individual is better informed to make a decision. In other words, people may arrive at convergence of faulty sources and have gained no greater knowledge about the issue for which they sought information.
A third limitation is the potential inability for interacting messages to overcome deeply rooted beliefs. Individuals’ beliefs may be established over a period of decades, and even when confronted with converging arguments that directly contradict their existing views, some people may still be immovable in their beliefs. For example, although individuals may hear repeatedly that the antivaccine movement is based in bad science, they may be unaffected by converging messages that vaccines not only are not harmful, but also are in fact beneficial for one’s health.
The MCF is based on a rich legacy of scholarship initiated in the writings of two of the most influential argumentation scholars of the 20th century, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca. The MCF is a crucial addition to understanding how people make decisions, particularly in the midst of risk and uncertainty. Its distinct heritage in argumentation literature situates the framework firmly as message-centered and inherently communicative. Particularly in the realm of health communication, the MCF complements other theories of information processing and uncertainty management. Rather than focus on routes of cognitive processing and heuristics or mental shortcuts, the framework instead directs scholars’ attention to the interaction of related messages and their potential to converge. If the interacting arguments are significant to observers, they will likely seek more information to affirm whether or not convergence is occurring. Individuals observing the interaction of arguments may recognize the significance of the convergence, and those arguments may ultimately have a higher likelihood of persuading them.
The MCF has clear implications for message campaign designers. Specifically, campaign designers can generate persuasive strength by emphasizing points of existing message convergence, and by collaborating with a network of relevant organizations to create new forms of convergence. Message designers who seek to align with other agencies or to bolster existing arguments should design messages that are similar and are distributed from a network of collaborating agencies and organizations. Alternatively, the framework provides strategies for scholars attempting to diverge from incorrect messages or arguments that affect individuals’ behavior. Finally, the framework serves as a theoretical explanation for how messages from multiple sources influence decision making on health-related risks. Recommended actions, once advocated based only on case studies and “lessons from the field,” can now be supported and explained through the framework. Ultimately, this theoretical framework has the potential to assist and enrich communication scholarship in health and risk communication for years to come.
Discussion of the Literature
Communication scholars have contributed to an understanding of the ways individuals manage uncertainty in the presence of risk. Scholarship reveals that people assess the level of threat imposed by the risk and then, based on their appraisal, decide whether or not to seek information. Much of this work has used a stimulus-response approach. While this research has provided a solid base for understanding reactions to risks, the experimental design has necessitated fairly simple messages used as stimuli. Ways of explaining complex interactions of messages are still needed.
Other social science theories assist scholars in understanding the ways in which individuals process information. Some of the most prominent theories of persuasion explain information processing through dual models of persuasion. These scholars may consider risk messages as being processed through central or peripheral routes, or if the cognitive process if fast or slow. Certain aspects of the message might evoke a different style of processing, which is valuable for theorists and practitioners to understand. While this seminal work has been crucial to the field, it tends to be more theoretically rooted in psychology and cognition. Information processing is, of course, important to communication; however, the research fails to explain dynamic, ongoing interactions.
Because empiricist characterizations of human logic can, at times, be unrealistic and lacking in explanatory power, other scholars’ attention has been more focused on the social construction paradigm. Rather than viewing decision making as inherently rational, they instead argued that individuals typically employ quasilogical reasoning when making decisions. In their dissent from the logical empiricists, they described a process of interacting arguments by which people observe the relationship of multiple arguments on a given topic and then attribute significance to the areas of agreement or overlap among the messages. The areas of overlap, they contended, resonate with greater significance or influence than nonconverging message elements. Thus, the more significant the overlapping messages are, the more likely people are to follow the recommendations. However, convergence is often temporal. As new arguments are introduced to the discussion over time, the influence of converging arguments can decay or be intentionally dismantled by those advocating an innovative explanation.
Some communication scholars are more concerned about the complex interaction of messages, especially when individuals experience uncertainty and are bombarded with diverse and sometimes conflicting messages. This cacophony of messages and viewpoints often poses difficulty in health and risk decision-making. Individuals actively construct what they believe is true and untrue by sifting through the myriad of messages. Studies employing the message convergence framework have revealed that perceived strengthening of arguments through cross-source agreement is not only influential for laypersons, but for subject matter experts as well. And in times of public health crises, extant research suggests that agencies and news organizations perceived as trustworthy by the public can assist in establishing convergence by reinforcing and promoting credible information and dispelling claims perpetuated by unqualified sources.
Much of the current literature surrounding health message design focuses on a variety of topics, including fear appeals, framing of messages, and individual message components. More work must be done to contribute strategies for inducing convergence and divergence. Future research should seek to explain how messages that overlap and are consistent, particularly across different organizations and various message channels, will assist in promoting convergence. Additionally, explanation of interacting arguments should also offer strategies for message designers countering misinformation or incorrect perceptions by promoting divergence. Ideally, health communication scholars will begin to incorporate these considerations into their interventions and campaigns.
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