Comments on the original article, "Increased attention but more efficient disengagement: Neuroscientific evidence for defensive processing of threatening health information" by L. T. E. Kessels, R. A. C. Ruiter, and B. M. Jansma (see record 2010-14873-005). Kessler et al present an example of Communication Neuroscience as a tool for understanding the mechanisms that lead some health messages to be processed in a way that facilitates impact whereas other messages are ignored. Kessels et al used event-related brain potentials (ERPs), a high temporal resolution method, to monitor neural activity in the moment that messages are presented. They use this technology to provide insight about the low-level attention processes through which individuals at highest risk (in this case, smokers) disengage from self-relevant health messages (threatening and nonthreatening smoking images). The findings of Kessels et al are convergent with prior theory and empirical work demonstrating that high threat messages may not achieve the desired effect if presented in isolation (Brown & Locker, 2009; Leventhal, Safer, & Panagis, 1983; Liberman & Chaiken, 1992). By using the tools of neuroscience, however, Kessels et al elucidate a mechanism that was not apparent through self-report or implicit (reaction time) measures. They demonstrate that high threat messages lead to increased attention capture, but more efficient disengagement when threatening messages are self-relevant; this in turn helps to explain why high threat messages may not have the desired effect, despite successfully capturing people's attention. As such, this study illustrates one benefit of combining the tools of neuroscience with more familiar methods in health psychology.
Published in Volume 29, Issue 4, pages 346-354