The effects of message threat/reflection on psychological reactance in traffic safety messaging

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Engineering


Psychological reactance is a motivation to regain a freedom after it has been lost or threatened, which has led people to largely resist the social influence of others (Steindl et al., 2015). Steindl et al. (2015, pg. 205) also define psychological reactance as 'an unpleasant motivational arousal that emerges when people experience a threat to or loss of their free behaviors.' Seat belt use and distracted driving are two of the highest-fatality behaviors and they pose the greatest threat to other drivers' health and safety on U.S. roadways (NHTSA, 2018a). The purpose of this research is to investigate whether psychological reactance may be a significant factor in influencing people's reactions and their choices to continually engage in risky behaviors. Moreover, this research looks at whether select individuals are more prone to experiencing reactance and how it may influence their willingness to follow driver safety messaging. Specifically, this research will investigate whether varying message threat and message reflection influence the amount of reactance experienced. Three main components of psychological reactance are of concern in the study: Reactance Attitude, Emotional Reactance, and Threat to Freedom. Each of these behaviors is measured for varying message conditions for two different message sets: one for Seat Belt Use and another for Distracted Driving. For the Emotional Reactance and Threat to Freedom reactance measures, there is a significant correlation between the measures and reactance proneness. It was found that as proneness increases, the resulting psychological reactance increases as well. For the Distracted Driving messages, there was a significant effect of Message Threat for the Emotional Reactance and Threat to Freedom conditions such that low threat messages elicited less psychological reactance than high threat messages. From this study, we recommend the following aspects for designing traffic safety messages: 1) Messages should use non-controlling language (consider, can, could, may, try) over controlling language (should, ought, must, need), 2) Messages should aim to be suggesting (try to do this), rather than commanding (you MUST do this!). Additionally, high threat messages may tend to elicit stronger reactance independent of reactance proneness, supporting the proposal of avoiding high threat messages for traffic safety.




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