This experiment explored how vivid portrayal of threat in substance abuse messages evokes differential cognitive/emotional responses in adolescents (aged 12-14) and young adults (aged 22-24). Participants viewed 6, 30-second television PSA's. Facial EMG was used to measure negative emotional response and heart rate was used to measure cognitive resources allocated to encoding the message. Results indicate that adolescents experience more intense negative emotional response and allocate more cognitive resources to encoding messages that vividly present the threat component of a fear appeal based message. The results are contextualized within research in neuroscience suggesting that more intense emotional reactions by adolescents can be due to less developed pathways in their brain for regulating emotional response.
The overall goal of this study is to gain insight into how adolescents and young adults cognitively and emotionally process fear appeals in health-related televised public service announcements. A commonly used strategy in messages to promote healthy behaviors is fear appeal. For example, campaign messages aimed at preventing smoking have used vivid images depicting damage to the lungs caused by smoking, emphasizing the threat that smoking poses to physical health. According to theoretical descriptions of fear appeal based messages, such messages evoke negative emotions through presentation of a threat to the targeted audience (Witte & Allen, 2000).
Studies of the effectiveness of messages using fear appeals have produced mixed results indicating that multiple features of health campaign messages play a role in determining message acceptance. For instance, Kim Witte's work has pointed toward the need for threat and efficacy, with the level of efficacy needing to be higher than that of threat (Witte, 1994). This conclusion is supported by Gore & Bracken (2005), who suggest that fear appeal based messages need to have a minimal amount of threat countered with efficacy in order to be successful. Dillard & Peck (2000), found that fear is easily aroused and contributes to persuasion even if not all threat appeal elements are present. Further, they investigated the effects of other forms of emotional appeal and found that both happiness and guilt in PSAs are associated with message acceptance.
One possible reason for mixed results concerning the effects of fear appeal based messages is that researchers have not conducted in-depth systematic research on how specific, concrete features of fear appeal based messages are cognitively/emotionally processed. The research that has been conducted to date has focused on higher-level attitudinal responses rather than the underlying cognitive and emotional processes engaged by features of fear appeal based messages during exposure. For instance, researchers have not examined how the portrayal of threat in a fear appeal based message affects emotional response and attention during exposure to the message. Another limitation is that the previous research has been grounded in theories that see cognitive and emotional processes as separate. Most of the existing research on responses to fear appeal does not include theoretically based consideration of how human cognition and emotion interact in shaping responses to messages. Current thinking in neuropsychology conceptualizes cognition and emotion as intertwined (Damasio, 1994). The present study is an attempt to advance the state of research on fear appeal based messages by examining how the portrayal of threat, a significant concrete feature of fear appeal, differentially affects emotional response and therefore cognitive resources allocated to encoding the message for young adults compared to adolescents. This study of the differences in responses to messages between adolescents and young adults may help us better understand differences in cognitive and emotional responses to fear appeals, which can lead to recommendations for the design of more effective messages promoting healthy behaviors.
The most recent theoretical model of fear appeal to emerge from communication research is the Extended Parallel Processing Model (EPPM) proposed by Witte (1994). According to the EPPM, fear appeal messages engage audience members in either danger or fear control responses. Those who seek to control the danger take steps to avert the presented threat; those who engage in fear control focus on minimizing their fear in response to the message. The theory argues that the critical factor that affects our response is our sense of self-efficacy: whether we feel powerful enough to make the needed changes in behavior (such as quitting smoking) to avoid the threat presented. This theory provides insight into higher-level cognitive responses but does not account for the underlying cognitive and emotional processes engaged during exposure to a message employing a fear appeal.
In-depth understanding of underlying cognitive and emotional processes engaged during exposure to fear appeal based messages will require abandoning a theoretical framework that separates cognitive from emotional processes. Such research includes measurement of cognitive (i.e. attention) and emotional (i.e. arousal) responses but does not include a theoretical analysis of how cognitive and emotional systems could be interacting to lead to the responses observed. Scholars working in neuropsychology have given up a view of human cognition and emotion as being sub-served by isolated areas of the brain in favor of a conceptualization that considers cognition and emotion as intertwined processes sub-served by interacting brain areas (Gainotti, 2000; Gray & Braver, 2002; Tucker, Derryberry & Luu, 2000). Supporting evidence comes from experiments demonstrating that lesions of cortical areas lead to dysfunction in emotional responding (Damasio, 1994). Indeed, brain imaging studies have recorded activation across multiple neural systems, ranging from the brain stem to the cortex, during emotional experiences (Aldolphs & Damasio, 2001). Neural connections between cortical areas and limbic structures are thought to aid information processing and decision making by signaling emotionally important stimuli and allowing the regulation of emotional response in planning future action (Tucker, Derryberry & Luu, 2000).
One aspect of emotional regulation involves pre-frontal cortex modulating arousal evoked by an emotional stimulus in the environment (Tucker et al., 2000). Since the neural pathways for this kind of top down emotional regulation do not become fully mature until early adulthood (Segalowitz & Davies, 2004), adolescents may experience more intense emotions during exposure to emotional media messages like health campaign messages employing fear appeal. Due to the interaction of cognition and emotion (or lack thereof in adolescents) the varying intensity of emotional response could lead fear appeal based messages to have differential effects on adolescents compared to young adults. Different intensity of emotional response in adolescents versus adults during exposure to a fear appeal based message is likely to be induced by the manner in which the health threat is portrayed in the message.
Based on previous conceptualizations of fear appeal, the presentation of a threat is a critical feature of fear appeal based messages. Witte's EPPM model proposes that balancing the presentation of a threat with message components aimed at boosting efficacy is the key to an effective message. This attention to the impact of threat seems warranted given the primacy environmental threats receive in terms of information processing.
The human brain appears to have unique pathways that process and respond to environmental threats (LeDoux, 2000). LeDoux extensively studied fear conditioning and proposed a fear system that is a set of processing circuits in the brain responsible for detecting and responding to environmental stimuli that have been learned to signal danger. The circuits involve an interaction between the amygdala, sensory cortical and thalamic areas, hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex. One fundamental characteristic of LeDoux's fear system is that it integrates the amygdala, a structure primarily associated with emotion, with areas traditionally believed to be engaged primarily in cognitive functioning (hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex). This integration is consistent with the more recent view that emotion and cognition are not separate processes operating in a more or less isolated manner (Damasio, 1994). Connections between the amygdala and hippocampus are believed to be involved in long-term learning concerning contextual features of a threat (Maren & Fanselow, 1995). More directly relevant to processing during exposure to a stimulus that presents a threat are the connections between the amygdala, sensory cortical areas and pre-frontal cortex. Connections between the amygdala and cortical areas involved in sensory processing of a stimulus allow the amygdala to receive and send information to these cortical areas during exposure to the stimulus (McDonald, 1998). These connections alert the amygdala of the presence of a threat and allow the amygdala to very quickly influence sensory processing of it. The amygdala influences sensory processing of the stimulus presenting a threat both through direct connections to sensory cortex as well as by activating arousal networks in the brain that also project information to widespread areas of cortex (Holland & Gallagher, 1999). One such area is the pre-frontal cortex, which can cognitively regulate emotional response through top-down connections to the amygdala.
Fear appeal based health campaign messages focused on presenting a health threat by vividly portraying the consequences of engaging in unhealthy behavior could engage LeDoux's fear processing system in the brain. If this happens and adolescents' pre-frontal cortex is not as able to regulate the intensity of emotional responses, then they should experience significantly higher levels of negative emotion during exposure to the message. This leads to the following hypothesis:
H1: Vivid portrayal of the consequences of substance abuse in anti-drug television ads will lead to more intense levels of negative emotional response in adolescents compared to adults.
There is a growing body of research on the effects of emotional tone (positive/negative) of advertisements on attention. Overall, emotionally intense advertisements are more effective at grabbing attention than more neutral messages (Friestad & Thorson, 1993). However, this leaves open the question concerning whether people pay more attention to positive or negative toned advertisements. In a study of radio advertisements, Bolls, Lang & Potter (2001) found that listeners allocate higher levels of attention to negative toned advertisements. It seems possible that the human brain might be biased towards processing negatively valenced information in the environment (Shoemaker, 1996). From a developmental perspective this makes sense given that negative information (i.e. threats) tends to have stronger consequences for survival than positive information. There should not be a difference between adolescents and adults in this bias towards allocating attention to negative information. Negative information ought to capture the attention of both adolescents and adults. However, the greater level of emotional intensity evoked by vivid portrayal of threat in a health message experienced by adolescents could lead them to allocate higher levels of attention to such messages compared to adults. This leads to a second hypothesis:
H2: Vivid portrayal of the consequences of substance abuse in anti-drug television ads will lead to higher levels of attention paid to the message by adolescents compared to adults.
Vividness of threat in a fear appeal based message was conceptualized as a message feature involving the concrete portrayal of the consequences of engaging in unhealthy behavior. Vividness of threat was manipulated by having messages that concretely portrayed the consequences of substance abuse in the video track of the message and messages that lacked this feature.
Negative emotional response was conceptually defined as activation indicative of an aversive response to stimuli in the environment. Aversive activation was assessed using facial EMG to obtain participants' corrugator muscle activity. The corrugator muscle is located on the brow just off of the bridge of the nose. It has been associated with negative emotional valence (Cacioppo, Tassinary, & Fridlund, 1990). Corrugator muscle activity was obtained by placing two 4mm AG/AGCL electrodes over the muscle sites. The raw EMG signal was amplified and filtered using 90Hz high pass and 1000Hz low pass filters. Corrugator muscle activity was sampled 20 times a second and averaged for each second of data collection. Data was collected for a five second baseline prior to viewing each message and time-locked to exposure to the messages.
Attention was conceptualized as cognitive resources allocated to encoding the message. Attention was measured by obtaining participants' heart rate. Heart rate has been shown to be a reliable and valid indicator of cognitive resources allocated to encoding media messages (Lang, 1995). Heart rate was measured following procedures recommended by Brownley, Hurwitz, & Schneiderman (2000). Two 8mm, AG/AGCL electrodes were placed on participants' shoulders with a third 8mm AG/AGCL electrode placed on the wrist as a ground reference electrode. Heart rate was collected in milliseconds between R-spikes in the QRS complex of the cardiac cycle and converted to BPM averaged over each second of data collection. Heart rate was measured for a five second baseline period prior to the onset of each message and time-locked to exposure to the messages.
The design of this study was a mixed 2 (Vividness of threat) X 3 (Message) X 2 (Age) X 6 (Order) repeated measures design. Vividness of threat (high/low) and message were within subjects factors. Message was the repeated factor representing the fact that there were three stimulus messages within each level of vividness of threat. Age was a between subjects variable representing whether a participant was an adult (22-24 years old) or adolescent (12-14 years old). Participants were randomly assigned to view the six stimulus messages in one of six random orders.
Stimulus messages in this experiment were six, 30-second television public service announcements obtained from a collection of 80 substance abuse messages produced by various health organizations. The researchers viewed the messages and chose 22 to be pre-tested using the Self-Assessment Mannequin arousal and valance scales. A group of 14 undergraduate students at a Midwestern university participated in the pre-test. Based on the results, the researchers chose three messages that strongly featured the portrayal of the consequences of substance abuse in the video track of the message and three that did not.
Participants and Procedure
Participants were adults aged 22-24 (n = 50) and adolescents aged 12-14 (n = 30). Adult participants were recruited from students enrolled at a large Midwestern university. Adolescent participants were recruited from the community at large. Participants were paid $20 in exchange for their participation.
Participants completed the experiment one at a time in an experimental research lab. The researcher welcomed participants, obtained written informed consent, and then prepared them for physiological data collection. The researcher started the data collection program, which presented all instructions, stimulus messages and self-report measures on a 26-inch television/monitor. Participants were prompted to ask questions if they did not understand any instruction. The data collection program allowed participants to proceed through the experiment at their own pace. The experiment took approximately 45 minutes to complete.
Hypothesis one predicted that the vivid portrayal of threat in messages would evoke stronger negative emotional response in adolescents compared to young adults. Data from two adolescent and three adult participants had to be thrown out of this analysis due to a combination of experimenter and equipment errors. Corrugator data was submitted to a 2 (Vividness of threat) X 3 (Message) X 29 (Time) X 2 (Age) repeated measures ANOVA. Age was entered into the model as a between subjects variable. This analysis uncovered a significant three way interaction between vividness, time, and age (F(28, 2044) = 2.54, p< .001). This three way interaction is displayed in Figure 1. Adolescents exhibited stronger corrugator response to high vividness messages than adults, a difference particularly evident in Figure 2. Hypothesis one was supported.
Hypothesis two predicted that vivid portrayal of threat in messages would lead adolescents to allocate more cognitive resources to encoding the message in comparison to young adults. Heart rate data from five adolescents and four adults had to be thrown out of this analysis due to experimenter and equipment error. Heart rate data was submitted to the same analysis model used to analyze corrugator data. This analysis also uncovered a significant three way interaction between vividness, time and age, (F(28,1932) = 1.519, p< .04). Figure 3 displays this three way interaction. Adolescents experienced greater cardiac deceleration during high vivid messages in comparison to adults. Figure 4 more prominently depicts this difference between adolescents and adults. It is also important to note that there was a significant main effect of age on heart rate (F(1,69) = 6.796, p< .01). Adolescents had significantly greater cardiac deceleration to both high and low vividness messages compared to adults. It appears adolescents allocated more cognitive resources to encoding all messages but the difference in resources allocated to encoding between adolescents and adults was particularly pronounced for high vivid messages. Hypothesis two was also supported.
This experiment uncovered significant differences in how adolescents and young adults cognitively and emotionally process the portrayal of threat in fear appeal based messages. This pattern of results illustrates the importance of in-depth consideration of the impact of cognitive/emotional development in advancing an understanding of health campaign message effects. Previous work by researchers studying media effects, including the effects of health campaign messages, has involved the consideration of development as a significant trait that shapes responses to messages. This has primarily been done by studying responses from individuals of different age groups without detailed theoretical consideration of why age of an individual might influence responses to messages. It is proposed here that an in-depth consideration of cognitive/emotional development grounded in an understanding of brain development due to age will allow scholars to conduct strong, theoretically grounded studies of how concrete features of health campaign messages affect cognitive/emotional processing of the message. The ability to generate and test theoretically grounded hypotheses of how cognitive/emotional processes unfold during message exposure should advance knowledge of message effects and lead to insight concerning the design of effective health campaign messages because processes engaged during message exposure lay the foundation for any hoped for communication effect of messages.
Specific results obtained in this experiment support the theoretical proposition that adolescents are less able to regulate negative emotional responses evoked by the vivid portrayal of threat in fear appeal based substance abuse messages. Adolescents exhibited stronger corrugator muscle activity in comparison to young adults during exposure to messages in the high vivid condition of this experiment. It is interesting to note that this increased corrugator activity is particularly pronounced during approximately seconds 9-27 of message exposure. That time frame represents the point in messages where video concretely depicting the consequences of substance abuse occurs. During the same time frame of message exposure, young adults not only exhibited weaker corrugator activity than adolescents but also slightly weaker corrugator activity during exposure to high vividness messages compared to low vividness messages. Thus, the concrete depiction of the consequences of substance abuse clearly evokes more intense negative emotional response in adolescents than adults. Theoretically the biological reason for this pattern of results is that the adolescent brain is less equipped to regulate arousal evoked by the amygdala in response to a perceived threat in the environment.
The results obtained in this experiment indicate that the vivid portrayal of threat in fear appeal based messages not only evokes more intense negative emotional response but also leads to an increase in cognitive resources allocated to encoding the message by adolescents compared to young adults. Adolescents exhibited significantly greater cardiac deceleration during exposure to messages in the high vividness condition of the experiment compared to young adults, indicative of adolescents allocating more cognitive resources to encoding these messages. The content of all messages used in this experiment featured negative emotional tone so the increased levels of attention were due to the concrete, vivid portrayal of threat rather than the fact that people have been found to broadly pay more attention to messages with negative emotional tone (Bolls, Lang, & Potter, 2001). Tying this pattern of results back to a theoretical consideration of how brain development might affect processing of threat in fear appeal based messages it appears that less ability to regulate arousal evoked by the amygdala in response to a threat leads adolescents to increase cognitive resources to encoding fear appeal based messages that vividly present the consequences of substance abuse.
While significant results were obtained in this study on how brain development might affect the way adolescents and young adults differentially process threat in fear appeal based messages, there are several limitations. First, the study was conducted in a laboratory environment, measuring responses evoked by a single exposure to messages isolated from surrounding media content. In the real world of executing a health campaign, the target audience is typically exposed to messages more than once and obviously messages are embedded in surrounding media content. While surrounding media content can certainly affect cognitive/emotional processing of an embedded campaign message these carry over effects are unlikely to change the way brain development influences cognitive/emotional processing of a message. It is possible that multiple exposures to the same message, depicting threat in the same manner, would eventually lead to desensitization of emotional responses and fewer cognitive resources allocated to encoding the message. This is a question future research should address. In theory even though adolescents are less able to regulate negative emotional response to threat in fear appeal based messages, as a threat becomes less novel their amygdala should not need to become as highly activated leading to overall less intense emotional response. The results of this study indicate that adolescents likely have to be exposed to the same message more times in comparison to adults before they become desensitized to the depiction of threat simply because their emotional responses upon the first exposure are much more intense.
A final limitation is that while the results of this study can be contextualized in a theoretical consideration of brain development and functioning, this experiment did not involve the direct measurement of brain activity. The pattern of results can be theoretically explained by research done by neuroscientists indicating that the adolescent brain is less able to engage in top down regulation of emotional response in comparison to the fully developed adult brain. However, activity in the brain areas proposed to be involved in emotion regulation, namely pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala was not directly measured. In the absence of being able to directly measure brain activity, future research could further test the degree to which more intense responses to threat in fear appeal based messages by adolescents is due to less ability to regulate emotional response by examining the effects of efficacy components of messages on emotional response. One function of efficacy components of fear appeal based messages is to give the targeted audience information to help them avert the health threat portrayed in the message. As primarily cognitive based information, message content focused on boosting efficacy should aid in top down regulation of emotional response to perceived health threats. Future research could compare adolescents' emotional response to fear appeal based messages vividly depicting the threat with and without efficacy boosting content to explore whether efficacy boosting message content helps adolescents better regulate their emotional response.
Despite limitations the results of this study have some theoretical and practical implications. Results of this study could be used to expand Witte's EPPM model of processing fear appeal by suggesting a cognitive/emotional process, namely emotional regulation during exposure to the message that could underlie fear control responses on the part of adolescents. Future research could test this possible theoretical contribution by exploring whether intense negative responses to threat in fear appeal based messages increase the likelihood of fear control responses by adolescents. A thorough model of responses to fear appeal based messages also needs to describe how cognitive/emotional responses engaged during message exposure are related to other outcomes like memory for the message and attitudes relevant to the health behavior addressed in the campaign. More intense emotional responses evoked by the portrayal of threat in fear appeal based messages could lead to different effects on other message outcome variables for adolescents compared to adults. The goal of this study was to explore whether adolescents would exhibit more intense emotional responses to the portrayal of threat in fear appeal based messages. Now that it has been documented they do, researchers need to explore the implications of emotional responses evoked by threat in health messages for these other important message outcome variables.
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