Communicating disgust can lead to lower risk perception

There’s scientific consensus, the data exists, peer reviewed even, and there is absolutely no reason anyone should think otherwise. Despite this, nothing you say can convince some people otherwise. They’re fired-up, angry, emotional. They don’t believe the science.

Does this sound familiar? For any scientist or science communicator, it should. If it doesn’t, it’s time to leave your echo chamber. People are emotional communicators. Let’s look at the current research regarding emotion in communication and how we can apply it to our work.

Dr. Sara Yeo, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah, specializes in public opinion and science communication research. Her most recent work explores emotion in emerging microbiome research, specifically, disgust. Microbiomes are the environments that microorganisms live in that protect us against germs, break down food, and produce vitamins. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Yeo speak about her work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Sara Yeo (

To determine the role disgust plays in communicating information about microbiomes, Dr. Yeo presented a population with the same messaged framed in two different ways. One message framed the research in a disgusting way, using words such as “poop”. The second messages took a more scientific approach, such as “fecal matter”, to make the research appear less disgusting. The way they processed the information was also measured using a self-reporting method.

According to Dr. Yeo, the results were somewhat surprising. Typically, people process information either heuristically, quickly using shortcuts in their brain from prior experiences or knowledge, or systematically, taking the time and cognitive energy to analyze information in-depth. The research found that the disgust emotion has no effect when people were taking the time to analyze the message systemically. When information was processed less heuristically, but not necessarily more systematically, disgust had a negative effect.

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This led to the conclusion that the emotion disgust matters the most when people aren’t paying attention to the media or the message. Disgust leads to lower risk perception.

Dr. Yeo is excited to continue to explore the effect of other emotions such as joy, sadness, and even humor. Even way back in 2007, Dr. Monique Mitchell Turner was exploring the role anger plays in risk communication at the University of Maryland.

The Anger Activism model was developed by Dr. Turner after exploring the anger and efficacy, the ability to decide, and the link between people’s attitudes and behavioral intentions. Dr. Turner concluded that predictions can be made about different groups’ behaviors depending on their attitudes towards a topic and anger motivates people to engage more in discussion.

The model states that low levels of anger and high levels of efficacy will make individuals feel empowered to act, while low levels of anger and low levels of efficacy will leave people feeling disinterested. Those with high levels of anger and an elevated perceived ability to make decisions will be activists, while those will high levels of anger and low levels of efficacy will just be angry and disengaged. This model gives us a useful predictor for how groups will react to a message we are developing.

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Monique Mitchell Turner, Using emotion in risk communication: The Anger Activism Model, In Public Relations Review, Volume 33, Issue 2, 2007, Pages 114-119, ISSN 0363-8111,

Activists are common in the food and agriculture communities. They are often angry about something and feel they have the power to make a change. This is just one example of the Anger Activism model in action.

These two studies, and the developing research exploring emotion in risk communication, have implications for our communication work.

When developing risk communication messages, we know that the more time people spend engaging and processing information, the less of a role emotion will play. If people aren’t paying attention to our messages, emotion will play a much greater role. Communicators should ensure their messages are engaging and accessible. This will enable the public to analyze the information and pay attention, reducing the overall ability for emotion to obstruct acceptance.

Additionally, as we develop messages we can consider and predict the reaction certain groups will have to the communication. People who feel positively about a topic will not necessarily engage in behavior and become disinterred because there is a low perception of efficacy. Instead, those who perceive a higher level of efficacy and aren’t angry about a topic will be empowered to make change. These are the people you want to communicate to and this can be accomplished by ensure messages provide ways for people to act and decisions people can make.

To summarize messages should be engaging. Messages can be engaging through interactivity, socialization, or calls to action. They should also be accessible to the public and communicated through a variety of platforms. We can also engage those who we know will participate by providing high efficacy messages. Give the audience a choice and let them know that they can make a difference.

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