Monday, January 29, 2007

Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior

I normally wouldn't be back so soon to write another blog entry but my last post generated a great question by Ms. Weinreich. It's posted on the comment page but I wanted to forefront it on my blog because this is exactly the kind of discussion I love engaging in! Her comment is as follows:

"That's very interesting. Thanks for sharing how that works. Have you also correlated the psychophysiology with behavioral intention or practice? I wonder how well the attention/emotion combination predicts future behavior."

The link between how an individual cognitively/emotionally processes a media message and behaviroal response is a huge challenge to the research I do. Unfortunately, in the current state of my work I can only theorize about such a link. I believe that processes engaged by the brain in perceiving, making sense of, and storing in memory information from a media message lay the foundation for an eventual behavioral effect. Information stored in memory from a health campaign message is information that can shape attitudes and eventual behavior. However, there are a whole lot of other variables that will eventually influence say, a decision to start or avoid using tobacco. Perhaps the key for effective health communication efforts is to get individuals to cognitively/emotionally process campaign messages in a way that leads targeted individuals to store information in long-term memory in a way that supports the development of negative attitudes toward unhealthy behaviors and positive toward healthy ones. Where my research currently is at is a stage where we are trying to systematically identify specific features of messages that engage cognitive/emotional processes in the brain which are likely to accomplish that.

In the near future I plan to start moving more towards linking cognitive/emotional processing as indexed through physiological measures with attitudes and behavioral responses. The use of implicit attitude measures will be part of the new line of research. I also hope to conduct experiments using more longitudinal designs measuring processing of health messages and then tracking individuals' decision making over time and correlating that with responses to experimental messages. EEG (measurement of localized brain waves) also presents a potentially promising way to index the ability of specific types of messages to lead individuals to have approach or avoid behavioral responses to "cues" related to a health issue (i.e. response to the visual presentation of a beer can if the message is about preventing alcohol abuse).

Another, interesting direction, specifically related to the fear and disgust study mentioned in my last post concerns how strength of the emotional response evoked might affect attitudes and behavior. One interesting result we obtained in that experiment is a significant main effect of level of fear appeal on self-reported arousal and unpleasantness but no such effect on our physiological indicators of arousal (skin conductance) and negative emotional response (corrugator). It's as if individuals "think" that high fear appeal messages are more arousing and unpleasant than low fear appeal messages but don't actually "feel" the physiological component of that emotional response while viewing the message. I think it could be that this disconnect between "thinking" and "feeling" the intended emotion in a health message could be why some messages fail to accomplish attitudinal and behavioral objectives. Future experiments will explore this issue.

In closing, I want to thank Ms. Weinreich again for raising an interesting question. Ultimately, in my rambling answer is the bottom line that I just don't currently know how cognitive/emotional processing of a message predicts behavioral responses. However, I hope you have found the description of how I intend to head toward answering that question interesting. Also, I appreciate any feedback and help as I move toward designing the experiments described here. This kind of discussion is what it will take to do good science!

Have a great week.
Mad Scientist.

1 comment:

Nedra Weinreich said...

I think your proposed research holds a lot of promise, and I hope you will share any findings here (though I'm sure it will be quite a while before you actually have results).

The issue you raise about thinking vs. feeling the emotion is an interesting one. The wonderful new book "Made to Stick" talks about studies that have been done that show that people are less likely to take action when they are thinking in an analytical way than when they are thinking emotionally -- even when presented with information about the same issue. When the analytical side of the brain clicks in (whether it's to process statistics, perform some sort of calculation, etc), it seems to push aside the effects of any emotion it was experiencing. That, I think, relates directly to the type of research you are doing.

Thanks for answering my question so thoroughly. I look forward to continuing the conversation over time.