Daily Archives: September 8, 2009

Scared Stiff: Does Fear Motivate or Paralyze Us?

480px-Scared_Child_at_NighttimeIf you’ve seen the recent viral video discouraging us from texting while driving, or the quit-smoking commercials that feature surgeries showing organs damaged by smoking, then you may find yourself wondering if these gruesome images actually cause us to change our behavior?

Social psychologists have asked the same question and have found a variety of results. When considering the persuasiveness of a message we have to consider the message itself, the audience watching it, and the context in which it is delivered. Messages that have graphic images have been shown to be effective in producing behavior change, but only if there is a message attached to the images about what a person can do. For example, quit-smoking messages are more likely to produce a change in behavior if they are accompanied with information about smoking cessation programs or a phone number to call to get help.

In addition, characteristics of the audience have to be considered. Self-esteem has shown to be influential in determining whether a person will actually follow through on change, but it can depend on a variety of other factors as well.

Finally, we have to consider the context in which the message is received. Major catastrophic events, such as 9/11, can enact a variety of policies and changes that influence how we perceive messages. There are even more recent theories, such as Terror Management Theory, that suggest that making our own mortality salient can powerfully influence our behavior and attitudes.

Can you think of examples where threat, fear, and mortality are used as persuasive devices in order to motivate people to engage in a particular behavior? In what ways could politicians or healthcare providers, for example, make use of these findings?

square-eye £1.99 - small Tales from Existential Oceans: Terror Management Theory and How the Awareness of Our Mortality Affects Us All

Share

Feeling the Weight of our Decisions

ClipboardThe embodied cognition perspective has gained notable attention in the last few years by demonstrating the powerful relationships between the mind, body, and environment. At the center of this perspective is the idea that cognition is grounded in sensory processes, such that bodily sensations can affect cognitive processing. Evidence for this idea has been found in physical warmth affecting ratings of interpersonal liking (Williams & Bargh, 2008), as well as head movements influencing agreement with arguments about university issues (Wells & Petty, 1980).

Most recently, Jostmann, Lakens, & Schubert (2009) found that the concept of importance can be understood in sensory experiences related to weight. Jostmann and colleagues predicted that individuals who had a physical experience that involved more weight would consequently judge issues as being more important. They found support for this idea across 4 studies. In particular, they found that people who held a heavier clipboard rated issues relating to money, justice, and policy as being more important when compared to individuals who made the ratings using a lighter clipboard. Moreover, in a study where participants made ratings about subway construction in the city, they found that people holding the heavier clipboard (and thus viewing the issues as more important) engaged in more cognitive elaboration and were more confident in their decision compared to those who held a lighter clipboard.

Work of this type gives us a deeper appreciation for the relationship between sensory experiences and cognition, and how easily our judgments might be influenced by our physical states.

square-eyeJostmann, N. B., Lakens, D., & Schubert, T. W. (2009). Weight as an Embodiment of Importance.

$1.99 Balcetis, E., & Cole, S. (2009). Body in Mind: The Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation.

Gender, spiders, and media

090908_spiderOf the literally thousands of scientific journal articles published every month, only a select few receive media attention. From among the new research, the BBC recently chose to report on an infant study claiming a disproportionate fear of spiders among women.

The study reportedly showed 20 babies—10 boy and 10 girl—pictures of spiders paired with happy versus fearful human faces. The girls “looked longer” at the picture of the spider/happy face, evidently showing “that the young girls were confused as to why someone would be happy” when paired with a spider.

The BBC follows the leap of the researcher to conclude that evolutionary biology determines that women (who were “natural child protectors”) are more likely to be afraid of animals.

Notwithstanding the alleged evolutionary implications (some research has linked phobias to nurture, rather than nature), research has shown links between gender stereotypes and media content. A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology even revealed measurable effects on cognition from exposure to stereotyped commercials.

It’s frightening, to say the least, that behavior might be related to gender stereotypes. While doubtful that pre-arachniphobe females will read the BBC article, existing gender stereotypes are still reinforced, while all of those other scientific articles remain unnoticed.