Bacteria as bullies: Effects of linguistic agency assignment in health message

Robert A. Bell, Matthew S. McGlone, Marko Dragojevic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


When describing health threats, communicators can assign agency to the threat (e.g., "Hepatitis C has infected 4 million Americans") or to humans (e.g., "Four million Americans have contracted hepatitis C"). In an online experiment, the authors explored how assignment of agency affects perceptions of susceptibility and severity of a health threat, response efficacy, self-efficacy, fear arousal, and intentions to adopt health-protective recommendations. Participants were 719 individuals recruited through Mechanical Turk (, a crowdsource labor market run by Amazon ( The participants were assigned randomly to read 1 of 8 flyers defined by a 2×4 (Agency Assignment×Topic) factorial design. Each flyer examined 1 health threat (E. coli, necrotizing fasciitis, salmonella, or Carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae) and was written in language that emphasized bacterial or human agency. Perceived susceptibility and severity were highest when bacterial agency language was used. Response efficacy, self-efficacy, and fear arousal were not significantly affected by agency assignment. Participants reported stronger intentions to adopt recommendations when bacteria agency language was used, but this effect did not reach conventional standards of significance (p <.051). The authors concluded that health communicators can increase target audiences' perceptions of susceptibility and severity by assigning agency to the threat in question when devising health messages.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)340-358
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Health Communication
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Communication
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Library and Information Sciences


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