We’re at as Much Risk As We’re Led to Believe: Effects of Message Cues on Judgments of Health Risk

March 2002 | ,

One of the greatest challenges in advertising health-related information is overcoming the target audiences’ self-positivity bias (i.e., the tendency for people to believe that they are invulnerable to disease). In this article, we show that the self-positivity bias hinders message processing, and we demonstrate that message cues can reduce this bias and engage people in more precautionary thinking and behavior. We identify the process by which risk-behavior cues provided in the message affect people’s estimates of their vulnerability (self-risk estimates), depth of message processing, attitudes, and behavioral intentions. We test and find support for our theory in three studies that specify the types of risk behaviors that make the contraction of a disease seem easy versus difficult (study 1), that examine their interactive effects with the number of risk behaviors that are enumerated (study 2), and that delineate the underlying process by which these effects manifest (study 3). We demonstrate that the self-positivity bias acts as an a priori hypothesis on the basis of which people process and test incoming risk-behavior information, as would be predicted by confirmatory hypothesis testing theory. Our findings affect the theoretical understanding of how memory- and message-based factors work in opposing ways and suggest a more comprehensive framework for understanding memory- versus message-based judgments. Our results also have implications for media strategy and public health policy by differentiating between commonly used risk-behavior messages that are beneficial to the communicator’s goals (e.g., increase compliance) and those that are detrimental to the communicator’s goals (e.g., decrease compliance).



  • Geeta Menon
  • Lauren G. Block


Journal of Consumer Research