Focus on Research | Studies tout the benefits of using engaging websites to assess risks

July 21, 2013 

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    Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

    Coming up next: Pennsylvania is a nesting spot for almost 200 species of birds. Coming next week, a look at the work that researchers, including those from Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, put into the new Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, which offers a detailed look at those birds and how their numbers and nesting patterns have changed.

The typical image of a “mouse potato” is that of someone sitting in front of a computer, interacting online but generally sedentary offline. However, such online activity can be a catalyst for offline action.

More than 15 years of research in the Media Effects Laboratory at Penn State has shown that online interactivity has several psychological meanings and effects — not only does it inform and involve users, it also shapes attitudes, builds intentions and motivates behavior.

From games to social networking sites, interactive media have captured our imagination in recent years because they give us what we want when we want it. Unlike traditional media such as television, interactive media enter into a dialogue with us and respond to our actions. What we get from an interactive site is a direct consequence of what we put into it, leading to a “conversation.”

This real-time, back-and-forth interaction between active user and interactive media has been defined as contingency. This notion of contingency is so powerful that it shapes our stance toward the information conveyed.

A recent study in our lab conducted by Saraswathi Bellur found that when health risk information was delivered in a contingent method, users were more engaged with the system, had more positive attitudes toward the information and expressed greater desire to undertake behaviors that would reduce their health risks.

All this was achieved with simple tweaks in the design of an interactive health risk assessment tool to instill in users a sense of contingency, but without changing any health content. Users perceived that the system was responsive to their input and therefore thought more highly of the site and its content.

When the site is devoted to preventive health communication, there have been persuasive outcomes. For example, another study by Jeeyun Oh found that building contingency into an anti-smoking website made college-aged users think more about the harmful effects of smoking, relate site information to what they have heard from other sources and thereby develop strong anti-smoking attitudes.

The same study also showed that we can persuade our youngsters to have negative views about smoking even without making them think too deeply.

Some forms of interactivity persuade simply by enhancing the vividness of negative health outcomes. Images of long-term effects of smoking on one’s looks, lungs and brain were either simply presented side by side in the non-interactive version or provided to them within one image equipped with a slider at the bottom, so that they could slide across and see how the body parts change as a result of smoking.

This manipulation of interactivity was quite influential. Study participants who saw the images by moving a slider were significantly more curious, engaged and interested. Just the action of moving the slider helped them better visualize the effects of smoking and develop negative attitudes toward it.

In addition to enhancing vividness of presentation and responsiveness to user input, interactivity can promote preventive health by making things personally relevant.

Numerous interactivity tools are available these days to customize one’s online environments. We are able to not only decorate our desktop screens to make it our own, but also design our own personas to serve as our online representatives.

A third study by Youjeong Kim found that when users went into an online virtual environment with an avatar that they themselves customized, they were more likely to heed the health advice given to them than when they went in with an avatar assigned by the experiment. When users take the effort to make their online interactions personally relevant, they feel a greater sense of purpose.

Our experiments reveal that the interactive delivery ofmessages can persuade by providing contingency, customizability and vividness. Creative design of tools incorporating these essential features of interactivity can help motivate participants and promote preventive health behaviors.

S. Shyam Sundar is a distinguished professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory (www.psu.edu/dept/medialab) at Penn State. His research investigates social and psychological effects of media technologies.

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