Clinicians, medical and public health researchers, and communication scholars alike have long been concerned about the effects of conflicting health messages in the broader public information environment. Not only have these messages been referred to in many ways (e.g., “competing,” “contradictory,” “inconsistent,” “mixed,” “divergent”), but they have been conceptualized in distinct ways as well—perhaps because they have been the subject of study across health, science, and political communication domains. Regardless of specific terminology and definitions, the concerns have been consistent throughout: conflicting health messages exist in the broader environment, they are noticed by the public, and they impact public understanding and health behavior. Yet until recently, the scientific evidence base to substantiate these concerns has been remarkably thin. In the past few years, there has been a growing body of rigorous empirical research documenting the prevalence of conflicting health messages in the media environment. There is also increasing evidence that people perceive conflict and controversy about several health topics, including nutrition and cancer screening. Although historically most studies have stopped short of systematically capturing exposure to conflicting health messages—which is the all-important first step in demonstrating effects—there have been some recent efforts here. Taken together, a set of qualitative (focus group) and quantitative (observational survey and experimental) studies, guided by diverse theoretical frameworks, now provides compelling evidence that there are adverse outcomes of exposure to conflicting health information. The origins of such information vary, but understanding epidemiology and the nature of scientific discovery—as well as how science and health news is produced and understood by the public—helps to shed light on how conflicting health messages arise. As evidence of the effects of conflicting messages accumulates, it is important to consider not just the implications of such messages for health and risk communication, but also whether and how we can intervene to address the effects of exposure to message conflict.
Rebekah H. Nagler and Susan M. LoRusso
The concept of ambiguity tolerance (TA), variously called Uncertainty Avoidance, Ambiguity Avoidance, or Intolerance, can be traced back nearly 70 years. It has been investigated by many different types of researchers from clinical and differential, to neuro- and work psychologists. Each sub-discipline has tended to focus on how their variable relates to beliefs and behaviors in their area of expertise, from religious beliefs to reactions to novel products and situations. The basic concept is that people may be understood on a dimension that refers to their discomfort with, and hence attempts to avoid, ambiguity or uncertainty in many aspects of their lives. There have been many attempts to devise robust and valid measures of this dimension, most of which are highly inter-correlated and require self-reporting. There remains a debate as to whether it is useful having just one or more dimensions/facets of the concept. Using these tests, there have been many correlational studies that have sought to validate the measure by looking at how those high and low on this dimension react to different situations. There have also been some, but many fewer, experimental studies, which have tested very specific hypotheses about how TA is related to information processing and reactions to specific stimuli. There is now a welcomed interest by neuroscientists to explore the concept from their perspective and using their methodologies. These studies have been piecemeal, though most have supported the tested hypotheses. There has been less theoretical development, however, of the concept attempting to explain how these beliefs arise, what sustains them, and how, why, and when they may change. However, the concept has continued to interest researchers from many backgrounds, which attests to its applicability, fecundity, and novelty.