Understanding public resistance to messages about health disparities

Sarah E. Gollust, Joseph N. Cappella

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Advocates and policymakers strategically communicate about health disparities in an effort to raise public awareness, often by emphasizing the social and economic factors that influence these disparities. Previous research suggests that predisposing political orientation and values related to self-reliance and personal responsibility may produce resistance to such messages. In this study, the authors culled 4 messages about the causes of disparities in life expectancy from public discourse and randomly presented them to a nationally representative sample of 732 Americans. Three indicators of message resistance were measured: belief that messages are weak, elicitation of anger, and production of counterarguments. Expected political differences in message resistance were identified, with Republicans perceiving messages to be weaker, arousing less anger, and eliciting more counterarguing than for Democrats. Among 3 messages that described the social determinants of health disparities, a message that identified the role of personal choices (explicitly acknowledging personal responsibility) produced the least anger and counterarguing among Republicans. Political differences in anger arousal and counterarguing can be explained, in part, by predisposing values toward personal responsibility. These findings have relevance for policy advocates seeking to bridge public divides surrounding health disparities and for scholars advancing theories of reactance to policy-relevant health messaging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)493-510
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Health Communication
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2014


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