Decades of extensive research on persuasion has revealed various message characteristics which increase the chances of persuasion. We observe that several of the most intensively studied persuasion strategies explicitly aim to cause distress in their receivers in order to reach desired persuasive outcomes. This for instance includes use of message characteristics intended to induce fear, uncertainty, sadness, anger, guilt, disgust and more. The general idea of these appeals is to evoke feelings of discomfort, revulsion and shock in recipients in order to capture attention and lead to desired changes in behaviour.
However, while exposure to some of these characteristics might be aiding persuasion, it might have negative impact on mental well-being of the recipients.
As an example, higher levels of anger and stress, sadness, fear, and self-disgust have been shown to be negatively related to mental well-being. Not only that, but in some cases messages that intend to elicit a certain emotion (such as fear), have been shown to have other unplanned emotional outcomes (such as anxiety). Persuasive messages that appeal to certain emotions by the use of specific message characteristics could therefore also have unintended effects on the mental well-being of the recipients.
On the other hand, mental well-being before exposure to a certain persuasive message could impact how an individual processes it. Vulnerable populations, such as for instance depressed or anxious individuals, are known to be harder to reach and persuade than others. These individuals could also process specific message characteristics (such as fear appeals) differently than others.
Keeping mental well-being of the recipients in mind is especially important in the context of health communication (take for instance the recent Covid-19 crisis) or risk communication which plays a critical role in prevention, adherence to the guidelines, and reduction of anxiety and fear. But what happens when precisely the way we communicate be a source or further anxiety and fear? And how can we do better, while keeping the persuasive objectives in mind?
As the first pandemic in the digital age, Covid-19 has revealed social media as a potentially powerful lever for interventions that are linked to mental well-being outcomes. Social media has increasingly been used for transmission of health communication but may also have been used to help regulate emotions during the uncertain circumstances. If so, what types of interactions with persuasive or informational messages on social media have a potential to buffer the negative effects of exposure to the messages on the mental well-being of the recipient?
In light of above, this PhD project aims to:
- identify characteristics of persuasive messages and social media use that are linked to mental well-being
- examine how one’s mental well-being prior to exposure to a persuasive message might impact processing of the message and its characteristics
- causally test the effects of key characteristics of health messages and social media use on mental well-being and message effectiveness