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Title:An examination of descriptive and injunctive norms as antecedents to psychological reactance
Author(s):Reynolds-Tylus, Tobias
Director of Research:Quick, Brian L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Quick, Brian L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Lammers, John C.; Bigman, Cabral A; Bigsby, Elisabeth
Department / Program:Communication
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Psychological Reactance
Social Norms
Descriptive Norms
Injunctive Norms
Message Processing
Abstract:Designing messages that successfully produce behavior change is a central objective for many health communication scholars. However, many health campaigns fail to effectively produce desired behavioral behavior, and occasionally boomerang effects can result in audience members adopting behaviors opposite of the recommended action. Psychological reactance theory – which posits that individuals cherish their personal freedoms, and react negatively when their freedom is threatened – provides a theoretical account for why persuasive messages can fail. The current study extends the literature on psychological reactance theory in two primary ways. First, by examining the role of descriptive and injunctive norms messages as antecedents to freedom threat and reactance. Second, by examining message elaboration as an antecedent and moderator of the reactance process. In Study 1, college students (N = 405) were randomly assigned to view print ads using a 3 (norms message: descriptive norm vs. injunctive norm vs. control) X 2 (forceful language: high vs. low) X 2 (topic: alcohol consumption, regular exercise) between subjects posttest only design. In Study 2, adult Internet users (N = 655) were randomly assigned to view print ads using a 2 (descriptive norm: present vs. absent) X 2 (injunctive norm: present vs. absent) X 2 (forceful language: high vs. low) X 2 (topic: organ donation, energy conservation) between-subjects posttest only design posttest only design. Four general conclusions are drawn from this investigation. First, descriptive and injunctive norms messages did not affect perceived descriptive or injunctive norms across all four topics and two populations. In other words, the norms message inductions consistently failed. This result is likely due to a confluence of factors, including the fact that the current studies made comparisons between two norms message frames, as well as a no-norm control message (rather than maximizing the variance with an artificially low and high norm condition as is more typical in the literature), the use of quite distal referent groups in the messages (“University students” and “Americans”), as well as the relatively short (~50 words) nature of the print messages. Second, despite following the two-step approach to modeling reactance in the current studies, modification indices for three of the four models suggested the addition of a direct path from an exogenous variable to state reactance. Given the lack of uniformity in the reactance literature in regards to how reactance is modeled vis-à-vi freedom threat, the current study holds implications for scholars interested in the operationalization of reactance. Third, the findings of the current investigation also have theoretical implications for theories of message processing such as the elaboration likelihood model. Across all four topics, greater message elaboration was associated with either diminished freedom threat (alcohol, organ donation) or diminished reactance (exercise, energy conservation), suggesting that reactance reduction is another persuasive benefit of greater message elaboration. Fourth, an interaction between message elaboration and forceful language was observed in the exercise sample. The interaction was such that under conditions of greater message elaboration and the presence of forceful language, freedom threat was diminished. Though this finding seems rather counterintuitive on its face, it may be the case that in some cases (i.e., under high elaboration) audience members appreciate forceful message for their frankness. Given, however, that this interaction was observed for only one topic (regular exercise), generalizing this finding to other topics is premature. Practical implications of the current findings are also discussed, as well as limitations and future directions for research.
Issue Date:2018-07-09
Rights Information:Copyright 2018 Tobias Reynolds-Tylus
Date Available in IDEALS:2018-09-27
Date Deposited:2018-08

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