The reasoned action approach is a behavioral theory that has been developed since the 1960s in a sequence of reformulations. It comprises the theory of reasoned action; the theory of planned behavior; the integrative model of behavioral prediction; and its current formulation, the reasoned action approach to explaining and changing behavior. Applied to health messages, reasoned action theory proposes a behavioral process that can be described in terms of four parts. First, together with a multitude of other potential sources, health messages are a source of beliefs about outcomes of a particular health behavior, about the extent of social support for performing that behavior from specific other people, and about factors that may hamper or facilitate engaging in the behavior. Second, these beliefs inform attitude toward performing the behavior, perceptions of normative influence, and perceptions of control with respect to performing the behavior. Third, attitude, perceived norms, and perceived control inform the intention to perform the behavior. Fourth, people will act on their intention if they have the required skills to do so and if there are no environmental obstacles that impede behavioral performance. The theory’s conceptual perspective on beliefs as the foundation of behavior offers a theoretical understanding of the role of health messages in behavior change. The theory also can be used as a practical tool for identifying those beliefs that may be most promising to address in health messages, which makes the theory useful for those designing health message interventions. Reasoned action theory is one of the most widely used theories in health behavior research and health intervention design, yet is not without its critics. Some critiques appear to be misconceptions, such as the incorrect contention that reasoned action theory is a theory of rational, deliberative decision making. Others are justified, such as the concern that the theory does not generate testable hypotheses about when which variable is most likely to predict a particular behavior.
Ann Neville Miller
Many health- and risk-related behaviors have moral implications. Most obvious are altruistic behaviors like blood donation. However, issues related to promoting the wellbeing of friends and family members, such as being sure that they don’t drive drunk, and the generalized obligations that attend environmentally relevant behaviors like participating in recycling programs, also tap into moral concerns. For promoting such issues, moral appeals may be appropriate. Moral appeals are messages that acknowledge individuals’ evaluative beliefs about universal rights and wrongs. Appeals to morality produce a sense of obligation and responsibility because morals are viewed as self-evident facts. Three explanations for why people engage in moral behavior are discernible in current scholarship, each with implications for structuring moral appeals: activation of social expectations, activation of personal norms, and arousal of emotion. The first of these is based on the subjective expected utility tradition. From this perspective, the key to successfully encouraging morally relevant behavior is maximizing benefits and minimizing costs. Because prosocial behaviors are enforced by social sanctions, many of these costs and benefits are socially bestowed. Thus, altruism at its core is hedonism. Theories that focus on activation of personal norms, in contrast, contend that people sometimes make decisions to donate blood, demonstrate for healthcare reform, recycle, and so on simply because they view it as their duty and responsibility to do so. When people realize in a concrete situation that their actions have consequences for the welfare of others, and that they are personally responsible for those outcomes, personal norms for the specific case are generated from internalized moral values. In this view, a central concern with moral appeals is ensuring that messages are aligned with internalized norms and that relevance and personal responsibilities are clearly communicated. Finally, theories of emotional arousal stress that although cognitive appraisals of personal and social norms are necessary, they are insufficient to incite people to selfless behavior. Rather, people engage in helping or altruistic behavior because moral appeals are emotionally arousing. Emotions associated with such appeals include empathic concern and guilt. Guilt appeals especially have been found to be as effective in eliciting compliance when behaviors have moral significance as other popular compliance-gaining strategies. Positive emphasis on responsibility and induction of hypocrisy are also techniques that rely on the appeal to moral beliefs.
Public service announcements (PSAs) emerged after World War II in the United States as a promising strategy for increasing awareness of important social issues and changing beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Research at that time showed that PSA campaigns had limited success in changing attitudes and behavior. Even so, both in the U.S. and internationally, sponsoring agencies and organizations continued to produce PSAs, hoping they would create significant behavior change. In the 1980s, a more informed view of what PSAs can achieve began to emerge as practitioners of social marketing demonstrated that media campaigns can produce behavior change when they are designed and executed according to the principles and best practices followed by the advertising industry. Beginning in the 1990s, PSA-based campaigns to promote public action through programs and policy change became more common. Research has shown that such campaigns can play a key role in shaping the public agenda, changing perceptions of social norms, reinforcing school- and community-based programs, and building support for and then publicizing changes in public policy, all of which can foster individual behavior change. PSAs and other media executions are best designed using a planning scheme that is grounded in advertising best practices and behavior change theory and that uses those media executions as part of a broader intervention effort. These various elements can be brought together by using a media planning guide that outlines how the campaign will work in sync with other intervention activities and what its key messages will be. In the United States, federal regulations that outlined broadcasters’ public service obligations were loosened in the 1980s, making it increasingly difficult to get donated time for PSAs and other public service messages. More broadly, the increased focus of broadcasters, cable networks, and print publications on generating revenue has magnified this problem. Faced with strong competition, campaign planners need a strategy for convincing media gatekeepers to give priority to their messaging. The rise of social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) has opened up a new means of putting PSAs before the public. For example, once a message is posted on a video-sharing website such as YouTube, it can be linked to the sponsoring organization’s website, where additional intervention-related material can be found, as well as to websites hosted by other groups. Promotional efforts through national, state, and community organizations can draw an initial audience, with the hope that they will share the link with their social media and email contacts and that eventually the message will “go viral.” PSAs remain a viable media alternative for public communication campaigns, despite the fact that major media outlets do not often provide donated time or space for such advertising. In some cases, a PSA-driven campaign will be supported by a large budget, but while such campaigns have a better chance of success, the resources required are seldom available. The emergence of social media has created a new way to build an audience. Successful examples of social media campaigns are emerging, but why some campaigns take off and others do not requires additional study.
Jon F. Nussbaum and Amber K. Worthington
Health and risk message design theories do not currently incorporate a lifespan view of communication. The lifespan communication perspective can therefore advance theorizing in this area by considering how the fundamental developmental differences that exist within and around individuals of different ages impact the effectiveness of persuasive message strategies. Designing health messages for older adults therefore requires an examination of how theoretical frameworks used in health and risk message design can be adapted to be age sensitive and to effectively target older adults. Additionally, older adults often make health decisions in conjunction with informal caregivers, including their adult children or spouses, and/or formal caregivers. Message design scholars should thus also consider this interdependent influence on health behaviors in older adults. Strategic messages targeting these caregivers can appeal to, for example, a caregiver’s perception of responsibility to care for the older adult. These messages can also be designed to not only promote the older adults’ health but also to alleviate caregiver stress and burden. Importantly, there is an unfounded stereotype that all older adults are alike, and message designers should consider the most beneficial segments of the older adult audience to target.