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.
Associate Professor, Linguistics, University of Southern California