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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Unpersuadables: How Pro-social Advocacy Promotes Engagement Disparities
by Gans, Roger, Ph.D., State University of New York at Albany, 2018, 392; 10928003
Abstract (Summary)

Disengagement has been identified as a significant and persistent problem across broad swaths of modern life. Lack of participation in political and civic affairs poses an existential threat to public institutions and the fabric of our democracy (e.g., Delli Carpini, 2000; Prior, 2007). Failures to heed recommended guidelines and treatment plans cause epidemic-levels of unnecessary illness and premature death (e.g., Cramer, Benedict, Muszbek, Keskinaslan, & Khan, 2008; Ramanadhan & Viswanath, 2006). Worker apathy, employee turnover, and active disengagement cost organizations and their stakeholders billions of dollars annually (e.g., Gallup, 2013; Rampersad, 2006).

Despite exposure to countless admonitions to get involved, take better care of themselves, and work harder or smarter, many people simply do not do what their leaders, doctors, bosses, and other pro-social advocates tell them is good for them. Perceptions of problematic disengagement have led to thousands of public communication campaigns (Rice & Atkin, 2012; Snyder et al., 2004) focused on addressing these problems. Many such campaigns, however, have been described as being most effective on those who least need to change, and least effective on those whose behavior is deemed most problematic. The current study grew out of suspicions that efforts to address issues of problematic disengagement may actually serve to sustain or even exacerbate disparities in engagement. To test this possibility, the study examined the effects of two different theory-based pro-social advocacy message strategies on subjects at different levels of pre-existing positive engagement in pro-social activities within three different but common contexts of life: political and civic affairs, personal health, and the workplace. One of the strategies employed a “typical” directive message based on the theory of planned behavior (TPB; Ajzen, 1991, 2012). As a contrasting alternative, the other strategy employed an autonomy-supportive message based on self-determination theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2008). A non-persuasive control message was also tested to provide a comparison. The findings suggested that, compared to the control message, both persuasive message strategies led to greater disparities in post-test engagement between groups with the lowest levels of pre-existing pro-social engagement and groups with higher levels.

A foundational hypothesis, acknowledging the powerful influence of past behavior on future behavior, predicted that (H1) subjects’ pre-existing levels of pro-social engagement (i.e., pre-test engagement) would have a significant effect on their expectations of engagement in performing pro-social behaviors in the future (i.e., post-test engagement). A subsequent series of hypotheses predicted that, in addition to the main effect predicted in H1, pre-test engagement would moderate the effect of the TPB-based advocacy message on post-test engagement (H2). The results of this interaction effect would be that (H2a) among subjects with the lowest levels of pre-test engagement, the TPB-based directive message strategy would be no more effective in promoting post-test engagement than the control message, but that (H2b) among subjects at higher pre-test engagement levels, the TPB-based message would lead to greater post-test engagement than the control message. The result of these two outcomes (H2c) would be greater disparities in post-test engagement between groups lowest in pre-test engagement and groups with higher levels of pre-test engagement. These hypotheses were supported.

A research question explored whether the SDT-based autonomy-support message, as an alternative strategy, would be more effective (again, compared to the control message) in promoting greater post-test engagement among groups at all levels of pre-test engagement and thereby avoid promoting greater disparities. However, analyses showed that the SDT-based message also produced greater disparities in post-test engagement between the groups that were lowest in pre-test engagement and the groups at higher pre-test engagement levels.

A final hypothesis (H3), that the interaction effects between message type and level of pre-test engagement would be consistent across all three domains examined in the study, was also supported. This provided support for the notion that the tendency of pro-social advocacy messages to promote greater disparities between groups that could be termed the “haves” and “have nots” of society might be generalizable to more situations than those examined in the current study, and therefore worthy of further research. The implications of these findings for future research and practical application are explored in the discussion section that concludes this dissertation.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Morey, Alyssa C.
Commitee: Harrison, Teresa, Matsaganis, Matthew
School: State University of New York at Albany
Department: Communication
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 79/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Communication
Keywords: Autonomy support, Disparities, Engagement, Persuasion, Self-determination theory, Theory of planned behavior
Publication Number: 10928003
ISBN: 978-0-438-27485-3
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