Marco Yzer is an associate professor at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication whose research focuses on health communication, persuasion and motivational basis of health behavior. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
What work have you done to try to figure out what works with health messaging?
I've been working with a neuroscientist at the University of Minnesota for the past seven years on how the adolescent brain works in regards to health communication. We've had teens look at anti-drug ads and non-health-related ads and have analyzed what brain networks these ads trigger. We've had two interesting findings. The first is that health ads spark the fight or flight response in the brain and made the teens on "high alert." The second is that effective health ads activated both the emotional part of the brain and the control system, or the part of the brain that makes decisions. Weak ads just created an impulse response, which allows the message to be ignored. So now, we're working to identify what elements were in those effective ads that made the control and emotional systems respond. When both of those systems work together in the brain, we see action.
How is health communication different?
The way I approach health communication is around self-identity. While no two self-identities are alike, we all have two things in common: we need to see ourselves as decent people and we need to be seen as a healthy person. And we will instinctually protect our self-identity. Health communication implicitly or explicitly is a threat to that healthy identity. The easiest way to protect ourselves and our self-identity is to ignore these messages.
How does fear play into this?
With every new health crisis, a huge part of the initial strategy involves scaring people, but fear appeals that only scare but don't address effective skills do not work. People are quick to see a "scary" message as something that doesn't apply to them. We're very good at rationalizing our actions and ignoring messages.
How do you make sure people understand health messages?
If only it was a dichotomy and we could tell patients, "You make a change and this will happen." But it's not. If you don't make a health change, the odds of something happening only increases a little. There is no certainty. The positive consequence is the absence of disease. But this leads to a question of health literacy and ethics. How much does a patient need to know to understand what we want them to understand? Do we need full disclosure, which can confuse a patient? Or is "gist"-based information enough? If the ultimate goal is to keep people healthy and safe and we achieve that by not giving full information but giving the patient the "gist" of the information and that keeps them healthy and safe, isn't that enough? We should redefine what "informed means."