Featured research: Identity, self-concept and how they affect successful health communication

By Laura Marshall ’13 (M.A.), ’17 (Ph.D.)

The word “identity” lately brings to mind an association with our highly partisan political atmosphere, as in “identity politics,” emphasizing the importance of the social groups an individual places herself within when espousing views on issues.

Identity, though, is a deeper concept within academic research, and a key focus for Associate Professor Maria Leonora “Nori” Comello. Her work delves into how we perceive our individual selves, how those self-concepts can be activated by messages and how these self-concepts can affect our behavior and willingness to change for the better.

“Our values, our beliefs, our very concepts of ourselves all affect whether a given message gets through the cacophony of media we consume every day,” said Comello. “When a communication campaign is intended to influence health behavior — for instance, to help prevent substance abuse — it will be more likely to succeed if we see ourselves in the images and messages that are part of the campaign.”

In addition to the pervasiveness of media, there is also competition among self-concepts that vie for control of thoughts and behavior, particularly with regard to health. “We’re often in conflict about whether to do a healthy action or not,” Comello said. “Should I eat the piece of cake or not? Should I stay up to write that killer paper, or should I get enough sleep? My self-concept as a healthy person is in conflict with other self-concepts that might lead me to make different choices. We can design messages that give the edge to the health-oriented self-concept.”

Seeing message influence through a prism

Our identities are complex, dependent on multiple cues and self-concepts. The groups with which we identify also function as communication venues, especially in the era of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Studying how our identities affect the influence of media messages upon our behavior, Comello’s work has recently included a new theoretical model to study how identity and communication intersect: the prism model looks at identity as both a mediator and a moderator of the impact of a message upon an individual.

“Our self-concepts can be activated by messages, and once activated, they can also influence how we see and understand the message,” says Comello. “In the same way that a prism conducts light even as it refracts it, a self-concept can be the vehicle for message effects and can also influence which elements of the message we absorb.”

Comello’s previous work examined the influence of drug prevention messages on self-concept and on willingness to use drugs. Among the message themes she has studied are advertisements characterizing non-use of drugs as consistent with membership in a distinctive group. 

In another line of research, Comello has studied how the values and motivations inimical to identity are reflected in the use of recreational computer games by cancer survivors. The study showed that motivations to play games for a sense of accomplishment and community were positively associated with markers of psychological health including resilient coping and flourishing (Comello, Francis, Marshall, & Puglia, 2016). 

“Identity is so important to consider when we plan communication campaigns or evaluate the effects of engagement with media,” said Comello. “Knowing who our audiences are and how they see themselves improves our ability to reach them and influence behavior for the better.”

Her work in academia has also included mentoring master’s and doctoral students, with whom she has established long-term relationships and conducted continuing research into health communication campaigns and examinations of identity, self-concept and behavior influence.

Comello earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, her M.S. at Colorado State University and her Ph.D. at the Ohio State University. Her research has appeared in the scholarly publications Media Psychology, Communication Theory, Journal of Health Communication, Games for Health, Health Communication, Journal of Medical Internet Research and the Journal of Health Psychology, among others.

Laura Marshall is a graduate of the UNC School of Media and Journalism master’s and doctoral programs. She is currently an assistant professor at High Point University where she teaches and researches strategic communication with a focus is on health communication and health policy.