Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania
Conflicting health information & the rejection of science
What are the effects of exposure to conflicting information? Coverage of various issues – ranging from foreign policy to novel tobacco products – is rarely stagnant, due to journalistic norms and proliferation of sources. One particularly rich area of conflicting information is in the health domain. Dramatic contradictions – does dark chocolate lower blood pressure or increase risk of kidney stones? Is fish a source of omega-3s or mercury? – may pique both interest and frustration. From an epidemiological standpoint, this incongruence may reflect evolving risk assessments and distinct methodologies (e.g., observational studies versus randomized controlled trials), underscoring the scientific process. But the public may be ill-equipped to reconcile these differences, leading to whiplash – and more pressingly, a rejection of other, less charged health recommendations. One proposed theoretical model (see Nagler, 2014) leverages ambiguity aversion and excitation transfer to understand this pathway of adverse effects. Exposure to conflicting health information leads to confusion (perceived ambiguity) and backlash (negative beliefs about health recommendations and research); in turn, aroused confusion and backlash carry over into lowered intentions to engage in cancer prevention recommendations, like eating a balanced diet. While Nagler’s model finds support in observational contexts (both in cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys), it does not consistently hold when exposure to conflict is experimentally manipulated rather than self-reported.
In this project, I look at two possible culprits of incongruent results – respondent traits, which may moderate both perceptions and
reactions to conflicting information; and message characteristics, which may increase or mitigate adverse effects – across both observational and experimental methods.
Working papers will be uploaded here!