What’s your hometown?
Kingsley, Michigan. It is a small, rural farming community not too far from Traverse City.
Describe your area of research in a sound bite.
I’m a communication scientist-with a degree in communication and a background in social psychology. That said, I study, typically through randomized experiments, the effects that health and risk messages have on individuals-cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. Most of my research has been on the unique effects of emotional appeals—especially messages aimed at evoking fear, guilt, and anger. I’ve also studied messages, such as those in a public service ad, designed to bring up feelings of pride or hope. Through my research I hope to better understand what messages work best, and for whom.
Why is your field of study important for the public or for policymakers?
Some people assume that more communication is better-but, that is simply not true. We need more effective ways to communicate both to policymakers and to citizens or patients. More specifically, I want people to know that emotional appeals (such as ads designed to evoke humor or fear) are not equally effective for all people. We will be more effective health communicators if we tailor our messages to the psychological characteristics of the audience.
Do you remember an experience that inspired or motivated you to go into the field of public health? Does that experience influence the way that you do your research today?
When I was finishing my PhD in communication, my grandmother was dying from lung cancer. During her final days, my family members and I rotated sitting at her bedside. We had a pretty rigorous rotation schedule because most of my family members were smokers. It was such a distressing and ironic time. I remember thinking: “Mom needs a break from watching Grandma die so that she can have a cigarette.” That’s how addictive and powerful cigarettes can be. It was at that moment that I started dedicating my work to the field of health and risk communication. My family had seen a plethora of messages indicating that smoking causes lung cancer-but, none of those messages were as powerful as the addiction. So, I always keep that in mind in my research. I do not believe that communication is a magic bullet. But, I do believe that effective communication is a big part of the overall constellation of activities that must come together to help people live healthier lives.