Invoking fear about a health problem may not be enough to change behavior, says a study that found adding a little hope to a message might make people more willing to take preventive action.
The findings, published online in the journal Health Communication, showed that hope and self-efficacy - the belief that people can help themselves - significantly predicted intentions to take action against skin cancer, such as wearing sunscreen or protective clothing.
"With health messages, it's not enough just to tell people, or merely educate them, you need to motivate them, and emotions are really good motivators," said one of the researchers Jessica Myrick, Associate Professor at Pennsylvania State University in the US.
"We often think of emotions as irrational, but what our research is pointing to is that emotions can help us do the things that will keep us healthy and safe, so it's important to understand the broad scope of emotional responses to different type of messages and messaging components," she said.
According to the researchers, previous work indicated that while fear can grab attention and create awareness about a health problem, it might not necessarily lead to behaviours that could help people tackle the problem.
Fear and hope may work together to create more persuasive messages, Myrick said.
In the study, 341 participants, whose ages ranged from 17 to 72 years old, were recruited from Amazon's online task-completion platform, Mechanical Turk.
The participants reviewed and reacted to an article about skin cancer from a web page designed to resemble a page on the health site WebMD.
The article was divided into three sections reflecting factors that can drive persuasive health messaging results, including whether a person feels susceptible to the condition, whether they believe the condition is serious - severity - and whether they believe that help exists and that they have access to that help, according to the researchers.
After reviewing the message, the participants reported on emotions they felt about the article, including hopeful, optimistic and encouraged, all emotions that the researchers considered hope states.
Self-efficacy and hope did serve as significant predictors of sun safety intentions, said the study.
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