Language shapes perception

Recent study shows the importance of agency in health statements

Doctoral student Meng Chen, her advisor Dr. Robert A. Bell, and Dr. Matthew McGlone (University of Texas at Austin) have published an article titled "Persuasive Effects of Linguistic Agency Assignments and Point of View in Narrative Health Messages About Colon Cancer." The paper was published in a 2015 issue of the Journal of Health Communication. People perceived themselves as being more susceptible to colon cancer when agency was assigned to humans (e.g., "I developed cancer") than when it was assigned to the disease (e.g., "Cancer developed in me"). The authors also examined the effect of assigning death agency to either death (e.g., "as death closes in on patients") or to patients (e.g., "as patients close in on death"). Death-approaches-patient language led to greater fear than patient-approaches-death language. However, patient-approaches-death language was rated as more persuasive.


The authors explored the effects of linguistic agency and point of view on narrative force. Participants (N = 499) were randomly assigned to read one version of an article about colon cancer, defined by a 2 (disease agency: cancer, human) × 2 (temporal agency: death, human) × 2 (point of view: first person, third person) between-subjects design. Disease agency language assigned agency to cancer (e.g., “Cancer developed in me”) or to humans (e.g., “I developed cancer”). Temporal agency language described death as approaching humans (e.g., “as death closes in on patients) or as being approached by humans (e.g., “as patients close in on death”). The narrative was presented from the first-person singular or third-person plural viewpoint. Participants then completed a questionnaire measuring threat perceptions, efficacy, transportation, and other study variables. Language assigning agency to humans rather than to cancer elevated susceptibility beliefs. Death-approach language led to greater fear than human-approach language without impacting efficacy perceptions. Human-approach language was rated more persuasive than death-approach language, but only in first-person point-of-view narratives. Transportation and identification were positively associated with ratings of threat severity and susceptibility, fear, efficacy, behavioral intentions, and message persuasiveness. Implications for message design are discussed.