The Influence of Message Framing, Health Identity, and Regulatory Focus on Obesity-Related Health Behavior Intentions

Katherine E. Hyatt Hawkins

Major Professor: Anne M. Nicotera, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Kevin B. Wright, Xiaoquan Zhao

Research Hall, #161
July 24, 2019, 10:30 AM to 01:00 PM

Abstract:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018) list obesity-preventing health behaviors such as diet and physical activity as ways to reduce overweight and obesity and therefore, cancer risk.  According to the National Cancer Institute (2018), and the American Cancer Society (2016), overweight and obesity have been identified as risks associated with cancer. This issue is of particular importance because the rates of cancer, overweight, and obesity are expected to rise (Wang, McPherson, Marsh, Gortmaker, & Brown, 2011). This study examined whether messaging that links overweight and obesity to cancer risk increases the effectiveness of weight loss messaging in motivating intentions for behavior change regarding diet and exercise.  According to the Theory of Planned Behavior, there is an established link between behavioral intention and actual behavior and intention is an antecedent to behavior (Ajzen, 1985).  Intention can also be explained by background factors such as personality traits (Ajzen, 2011).  Therefore, this study not only examines components of the message, but factors associated and unique to the individual reading the message, including health identity, BMI, and regulatory focus. Specifically, this dissertation tests the influence of four different messages on individuals’ intentions to eat healthily or exercise.  Health messaging research has been inconclusive in terms of message framing, but Higgins (1997) concluded that Regulatory Focus Theory (RFT) may actually help account for the mixed results surrounding the effectiveness of gain-framed versus loss-framed messages. In addition to framing messages by health topic, this study used RFT to assign each topic a regulatory focus. The messages tested in this study included two prevention-focused frames, cancer and cardiovascular disease, and one promotion-focused frame, vitality. A control message was also used. Messages were randomly assigned to participants in a sample of adults living in the United States ages 30-65.  Participants’ intentions to eat healthily and exercise were measured pre and post message exposure. To summarize the results, individuals, overall and despite message type, did not increase in behavioral intention to eat healthily but they did increase in mean for exercising after message exposure.  There was no significant difference based on message, though. Background factors, including health identity and BMI were significant predictors of intentions to eat healthily and exercise. Overall, results showed that elements of a message were less influential than factors associated with the individual.  The cancer message was not significantly different in influencing intentions than other messages.  Results from this study imply the importance of linking weight status to health identity in order to develop effective health messaging and the need to increase awareness about the link between cancer risk and unhealthy habits that lead to overweight and obesity.