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On social media, young adults frequently encounter information that is in some way related to alcohol: from professional anti-alcohol advertisements, to strongly pro-alcohol posts by party-loving friends. These messages are completely at odds with one another: ‘don’t drink, it is bad’ versus ‘let’s drink, it is fun’. How do these conflicting messages influence your brain and the health-related decisions you make in daily life? Dr Christin Scholz, communication scientist at the UvA, will study these questions with her new VENI grant.

In western countries, mortality rates and general wellbeing are strongly determined by everyday factors such as what we eat, how much we exercise and how much we smoke and drink. ‘Communication tools – for instance advertising campaigns like the Bob campaign – can be really effective tools in helping people make healthier choices. However, it is not enough to simply tell people to stop smoking or (binge) drinking, partly because people are likely to see a lot of competing information in their daily lives.”

Scholz will study the brain in order to better understand how people make health-related decisions when they come across competing information like the above. “By understanding the mechanisms of how people come to a decision, we hope to be able to make better predictions about health behaviour and develop better interventions that can help people to live happy and healthy lives”, says Scholz.

‘Pro-alcohol messages and anti-alcohol messages are just a few clicks apart’

Campaign designers that aim to promote healthy behaviour with their anti-smoking and anti-alcohol campaigns, for instance, craft their messages with great care. How can you persuade people to change their behaviour to be healthier? But the moment that carefully crafted message is launched, it lands in an information environment that contains countless other messages, especially from social circles. ‘Pro-alcohol messages and anti-alcohol messages are just a few clicks apart’, says Scholz.

One moment you’ll see an advertisement for the Dutch BOB (Designated Driver) campaign, raising awareness for the dangers of drunk driving, and next you’ll see your friends, drinks in hand, on their latest Instagram posts. The messages that these ads and photos send are entirely at odds with one another: how do you reconcile this to make decisions about health behaviour?

What do young people see every day?

Scholz will compare the persuasive effects of anti-alcohol campaigns and other pro-alcohol and anti-alcohol messages on social media in order to gain a better understanding of how the modern information environment influences decisions in young adults. To do this, Scholz will first ask a large group of social media users between 16 and 25 years of age to donate some of their social media data for research and use automatic content analysis to quantify when and how much pro-alcohol and anti-alcohol content can be found on multiple networks. What do young people see every day? And what messages trigger more discussions than others?

Neuroimaging to study the brain

Next, Scholz will turn to the question of ‘What happens in people’s brains when they are exposed to this information jungle?’. Participants in a second study will view pro-alcohol and anti-alcohol content while undergoing functional neuroimaging at the Spinoza Center for Neuroimaging on the Roeterseiland campus. Afterwards, Scholz will follow this group for one month to gain insight into their daily drinking behaviour, media use, and the effect that various types of alcohol-related information have on their behaviour.

In summary, this study tries to answer the complex question of how and why we decide to act healthily or unhealthily as a function of the modern information environment by combining data on:

  1. what we see in the larger information environment
  2. what happens in our brains when we are trying to make decisions based on this information, and
  3. how we actually behave after seeing specific types of information. 

Sharing the results

Scholz will also use the results of her research as a starting point for recommendations and interventions. The results will be of interest to government agencies that aim to promote healthy behaviour, as they may help them find solutions on how to deal with pro-alcohol posts on social media while launching their campaigns.

dr. C. (Christin) Scholz

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

CW : Persuasive Communication