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How do People Process Health Information

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Applications in an Age of individualized communication Arizona State University using new communication technologies, it is not only possible, but practical to collect data from individuals in large populations and use that information to tailor messages and persuasive appeals to a specific person’s unique needs and interests. Such practice is already common on the World Wide Web and in many direct marketing efforts. It is becoming increasingly common as a tool of health educators. This “mass customization” approach to communication is fundamentally different from past strategies such as mass communication and even audience segmentation, which is used to target homogeneous population subgroup (Kreuter & Skinner, 2000).

Though not yet ubiquitous, technology-driven individualized communication is likely to be used with increasing frequency and to become more sophisticated in the years ahead. Therefore, it’s important to understand whether people process such information differently than they do other forms of communication and if so, to consider ways to build on this knowledge to enhance the effectiveness of communication-based efforts to promote better health and well-being. Traditional health education materials contain information that is the same for every recipient: a kind of one-size-fits-all approach.

With the advent of new computer technologies, a different approach to constructing health-education materials has emerged; materials are not massed produced, but rather generated one at a time by computers and tailored to the individual. Psychological and behavioral data are gathered from individuals and entered into a computer program that determines which health messages from among a library of possibilities are most appropriate for each individual (Petty & Cacioppo’s, 1981).

Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) provides a theoretical rationale for tailored communication. According to this model, individuals are more likely to actively and thoughtfully process information-i.e. to engage in what Petty and Cacioppo call central-route processing-if they perceive it to be personally relevant. ELM is based on the premise that under many conditions, people are active information processors-considering messages carefully, treating them to other information they have encountered, and comparing them with their own past experiences. Studies have shown that messages processed in this way (i.e. elaborated upon) tend to be retained for a longer period of time and are more likely to lead to permanent change rather than messages that are not elaborated upon (Cacioppo & Strathman & Preiester, 1993).

One might expect, therefore that comparison of tailored and non-tailored health education materials elicit (a) greater attention, (b) greater comprehension, (c) greater likelihood of discussing the content with other people, (d) greater intention to change the behaviors addressed by the content, and (e) greater likelihood of behavioral change.

Research findings to date are consistent with these expectations, for example, compared with non-tailored messages, tailored messages are more likely to be read and remembered (Skinner, Strecher, Hospers, 1993), saved (Brug, Steenhaus, VanAssema, & DeVries, 1996), discussed with other people ( Brug, Glanz, VanAssema, Kok, & Van Breukelen, 1998) and perceived by readers as interesting (Campbell, et al., 1993), personally relevant, and having been written especially for them (Brug, et al., 1996).


In this article, we have presented some of the findings from two earlier phases of tailoring researches describing studies seeking to determine if tailoring works, and how it works. Although the former question has been reasonably well researched, the latter remains a largely uncharted territory. We framed the question from an ELM perspective and found supporting evidence. However, this is not the only viable explanation for tailoring persuasive effects; for example, it may be that tailored information draws a receiver’s attention toward a certain valued expectations that are featured in the communication and away from expectations that are less valued. This might change the balance of factors influencing the receiver’s decisions and actions.




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