The Roles of Perceived Conflict and Self-relevance in Processing Contradictory Health Information

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The Roles of Perceived Conflict and Self-relevance in Processing Contradictory Health Information

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A growing body of research has shown that media exposure to contradictory health information can produce public confusion, generate negative beliefs about scientific research, and lower intentions to perform recommended health behaviors. To mitigate such adverse effects, effective communication and public health interventions are needed. However, less scholarly attention has been paid to the information processing of contradictory health messages. This dissertation furthers our understanding of the mechanisms of contradictory health information processing by asking two questions: (1) Are cognitive and affective effects of exposure to contradictory health messages mediated by perceived conflict, and (2) does the level of self-relevance prompt differential processing of contradictory health messages? To address these questions, I conducted a two-wave survey experiment. To test the potential moderating effects of self-relevance, it is important to select an appropriate health topic which allows variances in the level of self-relevance. Wave 1 survey (N = 1944), therefore, asked participants to report how frequently they performed eight routine health behaviors and rate how important it was to perform each behavior. I identified coffee consumption as the health context for Wave 2 because it had an approximately equal number of participants with varying levels of self-relevance. Wave 2 Study 1 (N = 649) tested whether exposure to contradictory health messages is linked to perceived conflict, and whether relatively high self-relevance prompts defensive processing of contradictory health messages. Results showed that perceived conflict was significantly greater among participants in the contradictory messages condition than those in comparison conditions with one-sided, convergent messages. Additionally, both high self-relevance (i.e., heavy coffee drinkers who think drinking coffee is important) and low self-relevance (i.e., non-routine coffee drinkers who think drinking coffee is unimportant) individuals engaged in defensive processing of the dissonant message that contradicted their strong prior beliefs and/or behaviors. Study 2 (N = 846) tested whether perceived conflict leads to subsequent adverse cognitive and affective responses of exposure to contradictory messages, and whether these responses differ by self-relevance. Results demonstrated that perceived conflict induced by exposure to contradictory messages was overall associated with greater topic-specific confusion, general confusion, ambivalence, anger, and fear; but not backlash, media skepticism, or surprise. Also, these effects did not vary by self-relevance. Taken together, due to empirical inconsistencies across the outcomes, it is difficult to reach a clear conclusion whether perceived conflict always functions as a mediator in contradictory health information processing. Additionally, those holding strong priors are more likely to engage in defensive processing of contradictory messages, but such processing does not result in differential effects of exposure to conflict. The implications of these findings for addressing potentially adverse effects of exposure to contradictory health messages are discussed.



University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2021. Major: Mass Communication. Advisor: Rebekah Nagler. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 39 pages.

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Shi, Weijia. (2021). The Roles of Perceived Conflict and Self-relevance in Processing Contradictory Health Information. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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