University of Southern California (United States)


The Covid-19 pandemic challenges many aspects of public health systems, including health communication. How do you persuade someone of the need for face masks? Or to stay six feet away from others? What about convincing people to do it all again when the next wave arrives? We take steps toward addressing these challenges by focusing on a key property of public health communication: it relies heavily on language. Human language is a powerful communicative system that offers different options for presenting information. How messages are structured can influence their persuasiveness and effectiveness. This project combines insights from public health research and psycholinguistics (the study of how humans process language) to better understand how to formulate maximally effective and persuasive public health messages during the Covid-19 pandemic. We will test how psycholinguistic manipulations (for example, the order in which information is presented, whether the message has an addressee-oriented “you” perspective or an impersonal perspective) affect the persuasiveness of Covid-19 health messages. We plan to address “message fatigue” and difficulties in reaching younger people by testing messages (including internet memes) suited for social media. We plan to use our results to identify the most effective messages and to provide them on a website for health promotion practitioners. In addition, building on pre-existing contacts with the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, we plan to disseminate the most effective Covid-19 messages for use in outreach campaigns.

Principal Investigator

Elsi Kaiser

Associate Professor, Linguistics, University of Southern California

Elsi Kaiser is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on psycholinguistics, a field at the intersection of linguistics and psychology. She received a BA in Germanic languages and literatures from Princeton University, as well as an MA in psychology and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. Elsi Kaiser approaches research from a highly interdisciplinary perspective and has experience with collaborations involving public health, law, engineering, and computer science. Her current research focuses on information structure, discourse phenomena such as perspective-taking, and the interplay of linguistic and non-linguistic information. Her research has been published in a variety of journals, including Cognition, the Journal of Memory and Language, and the Journal of Experimental Psychology. A native of Finland, Elsi Kaiser has conducted research on a range of languages, including Finnish, English, German, and Dutch, as well as collaborative work on languages such as Estonian, French, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese.