As health writers, we need to find and develop various techniques for effectively communicating different types of health information.
When we’re writing about health risks associated with poor lifestyle choices, it’s important we use techniques that do not cause resistance or defensive reactions in our target audience.
Most of us now know that storytelling is a powerful writing technique. Stories create better engagement than simply stating the facts. Still, stories alone aren’t always enough to help people appreciate the sometimes dire consequences of risky health behaviours.
One strategy that does seem to work well, though, is self-affirmation combined with storytelling.
What is self-affirmation?
Self-affirmation theory looks at how we respond to information or experiences that threaten who we are and what we stand for – our sense of self, in other words.
This theory also proposes that we tend to resist information that endangers our self-integrity and the control we have over our lives.
Quite simply: If you like drinking, smoking and junk food, then anti-drinking, anti-smoking and anti-junk food messages are a threat to your enjoyment.
Therefore, you don’t want to acknowledge the dangers associated with these behaviours. You react defensively by resisting and ignoring health warnings and public health campaigns about risks.
However, researchers propose that you could think differently about health risk information, and not perceive this information as a threat, if you practice self-affirmation.
If you think about the positive or good things about yourself, such as what you ultimately believe in and stand for, then you’re able to look at the bigger picture and perhaps be less likely to dismiss the health risks associated with poor health habits.
What does research suggest about self-affirmation?
Researchers have found asking people to reflect on their values or the things they love about themselves before they read or are shown a public health message will elicit better engagement and understanding.
In 2007, a research team from the University of Sheffield, led by Peter Richard Harris, found self-affirmation worked well when they studied smokers’ defensiveness to cigarette warning labels with graphic images, for example.
And, a new study – also conducted by Harris – has noted similar success, this time with alcohol.
In the study, published this year in the journal Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 142 female alcohol drinkers were shown a video story of a woman named Jo, who discussed her liver disease and its associated links to her previous alcohol consumption.
Before watching the extract, though, the women were asked to complete either a self-affirmation task or a control task.
The University of Sussex researchers found the narrative – Jo’s story – was better received and understood by the women who had completed the self-affirmation task.
Specifically, the women who self-affirmed drank less at the seven-day follow-up compared to when they first started the study (baseline).
The reduction in alcohol consumption in the study is, in theory, enough to make a difference to the future health of the women, especially when considering risks for cancer and liver disease that are dose dependant on alcohol units drunk a day.
How did self-affirmation enhance the health risk message?
The self-affirming women said reflecting on their values made them think more deeply about the things they didn’t like about themselves as well as the things they did like about themselves.
These women also reported:
- significantly higher levels of anticipated regret at drinking alcohol
- more positive attitudes to change
- more emotional response to Jo’s personal story
In contrast, the control group, who didn’t indicate their most important value, did not show a decrease in alcohol consumption at seven days follow-up.
Self-affirmation has implications for other areas, too – research has suggested the practice helps in reducing racial prejudice, for example.
How can we apply self-affirmation in our health writing?
The findings from this research team are encouraging, as they help us understand how to communicate health risks without causing our readers to resist, ignore, or feel defensive.
Before introducing a story, encourage readers to identify their values and beliefs.
You could also ask a series of open-ended questions before positively reinforcing the benefits from changing risky health behaviour, or using a narrative or story.
Here are some examples of self-affirming statements:
- Describe your most important value
- Give an example of why this value is important to you
- Give an example of something you have done to demonstrate this value’s importance
Of course, you can’t preface everything you write with the same questions. The challenge will be to think of creative, unique ways to ask self-affirming questions or encourage this process before communicating – ideally in narrative form – health risks.
In summary: Health risk information is better received when you ask your readers to identify their values and beliefs before communicating the risks.
Self-affirmation combined with storytelling can be a powerful writing technique to help people make healthy choices. Try it, and let us know if it works for you.