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The relative role of cognitive and emotional reactions in mediating the effects of a social comparison sun protection intervention

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Objective : This experiment examined the cognitive and emotional impact of two social comparison-based sun protection interventions in a sample of Southern California college students (N = 223). One of the interventions employed comparison UV photos of peers who had either much more (downward social comparison) or much less (upward social comparison) skin damage than did participants themselves. The second intervention consisted of descriptive norms information suggesting that a large majority of the participants’ peer group regularly protect their skin from the sun.

Design : Participants were randomly assigned to one of eight conditions in a 4 (Social Comparison Information: no photo vs. no comparison photos vs. upward comparison photos vs. downward comparison photos) × 2 (Descriptive Norms Information: Received vs. not received) design.

Main Outcome Measures : Emotional reactions (e.g. worry, embarrassment, relief) and sun-related cognitive reactions (perceived susceptibility, sun protection intentions) were assessed immediately. Sun protection behaviours were assessed in a surprise telephone follow-up five weeks following the intervention.

Results : The results demonstrated that the combination of seeing photos of peers who had very little sun damage and learning that a majority of one’s peers engage in regular sun protection resulted in reliably greater subsequent sun protection than all other conditions. Further, there was relatively direct evidence that both negative emotional reactions and sun protection intentions mediated this effect.

Conclusions : These findings add to the growing literature suggesting the importance of thoroughly examining the role of emotions in health behaviour decisions. Both theory and intervention efficacy would benefit from a better understanding of the relative role of cognitions and emotions in behaviour change.
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Keywords: UV photos; emotions; skin cancer; social comparison; social norms; sun protection

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Psychology 0109, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA

Publication date: February 1, 2018

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