Changing lifestyle behaviors has been estimated to substantially reduce the incidence of many types of cancer. Health communicators have therefore sought to create messages that motivate recipients to adopt and maintain lifestyle behaviors that reduce cancer risk. Associated research reveals that such messages are especially effective when they change both emotions and cognitions about cancer. Specifically, motivating messages increase recipients'emotional worry that cancer threatens their well-being, and also strengthen their cognitions that a recommended cancer-prevention behavior is effective at reducing cancer risk (response efficacy) and lies within their power to implement (self-efficacy). Despite these critical insights, messages often fall short of their potential to change lifestyle behaviors. One potentially important reason for this limited impact is that communication strategies overlook the role of abstractness in the public's understanding of cancer. Research shows that abstract, remote threats elicit low worry;also, people tend to lack confidence in the efficacy of behaviors that solve problems in abstract, unobservable ways. Therefore, developing communication strategies that guide the design of concretizing cancer messages represents a low-cost and potentially powerful means for enhancing message impact. The proposed project offers a novel integration of growing research in psychology showing that metaphor is a mental tool that helps people to grasp abstract ideas in terms that are more concrete. Applying this research to cancer communication leads to the hypothesis that messages that use metaphor to compare cancer risks to concrete hazards, and to compare cancer prevention behaviors to concrete prevention practices, will elicit an energizing level of cancer worry and strengthen efficacy cognitions. This knowledge of how metaphor-induced emotions and cognitions interactively influence behavior suggests new strategies for creating metaphoric messages that will be uniquely effective at motivating behaviors that reduce cancer risk. The proposed project examines the motivating effect of metaphoric cancer messages on prevention behaviors in five programmatic experimental studies. All five studies are designed to illuminate how this effect is driven by interacting emotional and cognitive processes. They also examine for whom such messages will be particularly effective and the specific features of the messages that determine when they motivate prevention behavior. The studies are designed to inform the impact of metaphoric messages across a range of cancer communication contexts. They test predictions with regard to skin, lung, and colon cancer, and they assess both short- and longer-term health behavior change in both field and laboratory settings. If the project aims are achieved, this research will provide a critical foundation for understanding how to foster health behavior change and productive health decision making that can markedly reduce cancer diagnosis and progression.

Public Health Relevance

Changing lifestyle behaviors is estimated to substantially reduce the incidence of many types of cancer. But public health messages may fail to motivate people to adopt recommended cancer-prevention practices because they portray cancer as an abstract future threat that people are not afraid of, and they do not convince people that those practices have the power to reduce their risk. The proposed research investigates how health messages can use metaphor to increase cancer prevention behavior by fostering more productive emotional and cognitive reactions to the threat of cancer and the lifestyle choices that can reduce cancer risk.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZCA1-SRLB-2 (J1))
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Ferrer, Rebecca
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University of Kansas Lawrence
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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