Effects of Prior Exposure to Conflicting Health Information on Responses to Subsequent Unrelated Health Messages: Results from a Population-Based Longitudinal Experiment

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Abstract

Background: Accumulating evidence suggests that exposure to conflicting health information can adversely affect public understanding of and trust in health recommendations. What is not known is whether prior exposure to such information renders people less receptive to subsequent unrelated health messages about behaviors for which the evidence is clear and consistent. Purpose: This study tests this "carryover"effects hypothesis, positing that prior exposure to conflict will reduce receptivity to subsequent unrelated health messages, and examines potential affective and cognitive pathways through which such effects might occur. Methods: A three-wave, online, population-based survey experiment (N = 2,716) assessed whether participants who were randomly assigned to view a series of health news stories and social media posts featuring conflict at Times 1 and 2 were ultimately less receptive at Time 3 to ads from existing health campaigns about behaviors for which there is scientific consensus, compared to those who saw the same series of stories and posts that did not feature conflict. Results: Structural equation modeling revealed evidence of carryover effects of exposure to conflict on two dimensions of message receptivity: greater resistance to the unrelated ads and lower perceptions of the health behaviors featured in the ads. Modeling indicated that carryover effects were a function of generalized backlash toward health recommendations and research elicited by prior exposure to conflicting information. Conclusions: Findings suggest that the broader public information environment, which is increasingly characterized by messages of conflict and controversy, could undermine the success of large-scale public health messaging strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)498-511
Number of pages14
JournalAnnals of Behavioral Medicine
Volume56
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - May 1 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by a grant from the National Cancer Institute (5R21CA218054-02; PI: RHN). This content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Society of Behavioral Medicine. All rights reserved.

Keywords

  • Carryover effects
  • Conflicting health information
  • Health communication
  • Survey-based experiment

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