Why do threatening anti-distracted driving messages backfire? Investigating the role of coactivation and counterarguing in relation to distal risk and proximal reward
Najera, Christina Jimenez
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Every year, thousands of people lose their lives to distracted driving, specifically, cell phone use while driving. There have been and currently are strategic communication efforts aimed at ending this behavior. However, despite national attention and these communication efforts, cell phone use while driving continues to be a public health issue. While there may be various reasons that could be contributing to a lack of efficacy for these campaigns, this study argued that defensive processing of these messages is resulting in the rejection of the potential risk related to cell phone use while driving. These campaigns typically portray the negative consequences of cell phone use while driving using graphic visuals with the main goal of persuading individuals to stop engaging in this behavior. This study argued that these portrayals elicit a cascade of psychological responses that includes risk discounting, which then leads to counterarguing, ultimately resulting in the dismissal of the message’s arguments. While counterarguing has been extensively investigated in other risk related contexts, such as drug use and smoking, it has not been studied in situations where the behavior presents an immediate—but small—socially-driven reward in comparison with a seemingly unlikely—but serious—bodily risk. Thus, this study had three goals: (1) to explore how individuals process anti-distracted driving messaging; (2) to investigate the role of risk and reward perceptions in the processing of messages aimed at curbing risky behavior; and (3) to define counterarguing as the outcome of conflicting risk and reward associations. This study employed a 2 (threat content) X 3 (repetition) X 2 (order) X Time within-subjects experiment to fulfill these objectives. Results showed evidence of defensive processing towards anti-cell phone use while driving messaging though there was no evidence of counterarguing occurring, a result not previously revealed in preceding anti-risky behavior work. Interestingly, level of threat portrayed in the message did not play a role in counterarguing but did present evidence of coactivation. This suggests this may be driven by the portrayal of both a socially rewarding behavior (i.e., cell phone use) and the risk caused by this behavior. Overall, this study offers some noteworthy results that provide further insight into how individuals process anti-distracted driving messaging and puts forth future directions in exploring other possible defensive processing outcomes that could be at play.Embargo status: Restricted until September 2026. To request an access exception, click on the PDF link to the left.