Our goal is to encourage readers to make improved choices for a healthier lifestyle.
This can be challenging if our readers are set in their ways and aren’t open to reading about new ideas in the first place.
Research has suggested people tend to ignore messages that challenge their current beliefs and behaviours; instead, they seek out reinforcing content. This is a phenomenon known as systematic bias.
Systematic bias, or selective exposure, occurs when readers choose messages that match pre-existing beliefs – and, it can be an impediment to change.
If someone only reads material that reinforces their beliefs, how will they ever learn anything new or change their unhealthy habits?
In the online world, it’s not as simple as that, though. Often, readers are searching for information and are first presented with a list of links before making a choice about what to read.
So, what does this mean for health writers tasked with writing clever, clickable headlines and introductions?
And, could understanding more about selective exposure help us write engaging content?
Selective exposure and behaviour change
Researchers from Ohio State University’s School of Communication examined how online users attend selectively to health information on the net.
In the study, 419 university students were quizzed about their health behaviours before being shown four online health articles about consuming organic foods, drinking coffee, eating fruits and vegetables and exercising.
In the context of an online search, students could click on headlines and introductions that either promoted these behaviours or suggested avoiding these behaviours.
Here’s what was shown for drinking coffee, for example:
- ‘‘Guilt-Free Pleasure of Coffee—With coffee shops seemingly on every corner, and a continued increase in American coffee consumption, the news about coffee’s effects on health is surprisingly good’’ – an example of a message promoting a behaviour
- ‘‘Coffee Is Addictive, Mind-Altering: Caffeine addicts may try their best to give up their coffee habit—but usually are not able to, even when it threatens their very well-being’’ – an example of a message suggesting avoidance of that behaviour
In an additional twist, the messages were associated with either low-or high-credibility sources.
Understanding the reader’s mindset is key to interpreting the study outcomes.
Coffee drinkers preferred to read messages promoting the health benefits of coffee
In a somewhat unsurprising finding, the more individuals engaged in health behaviours, the more time they spent with messages promoting these health behaviours.
In other words, coffee drinkers spent more time reading content that promoted the health benefits of coffee.
According to the researchers, this finding is aligned with the notion of self-bolstering. Interestingly, repetition is one of the key elements of a persuasive message. This result also suggests messages that reinforce existing ideas could be a helpful strategy in terms of helping readers to maintain healthy habits.
“While much self-regulation theorising focuses on behavioural change, the maintenance of behaviours is also of utmost relevance, in particular for health behaviours,” the researchers wrote.
In another finding, the more students fell short of perceived standards in health behaviours, the more time they spent reading content about that behaviour.
This suggests these students were seeking to motivate themselves to engage more in those behaviours, the researchers propose.
“This pattern suggests that participants not meeting perceived recommendations aimed to motivate themselves to consume more organic food, or to consume more fruits and vegetables, or to drink more coffee, or to exercise more often—if they felt they fell short of the recommended frequency of these behaviours.
“At the same time, if participants felt they drank too much coffee, their discrepancy was negative and they would, on average, spend less time with messages promoting coffee consumption.”
In line with this, there was no evidence that the students avoided behaviour-advocating messages.
Finally, preliminary analyses showed that information from high-credibility sources was preferred overall.
Here’s how we can use these findings to write more engaging content:
- Focus on the positives, not the negatives – avoid framing your health messages by discouraging poor lifestyle choices
- Reinforce positive health messages – repeating the message makes it stick and helps healthy people to stay healthy
- Explain what makes a source credible – educate readers on the importance of source credibility
- Acknowledge various mindsets – readers who felt they weren’t meeting recommended standards spent less time reading this content, so if you can address this hesitation you may be able to keep these readers on the page
Knobloch-Westerwick, S., Johnson, B. K. and Westerwick, A. (2013), To Your Health: Self-Regulation of Health Behavior Through Selective Exposure to Online Health Messages. J Commun, 63: 807–829. doi:10.1111/jcom.12055