Vicious viruses and vigilant vaccines: Effects of linguistic agency assignment in health policy advocacy

Robert A Bell, Matthew S. McGlone, Marko Dragojevic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Studying the effect of a fictitious policy editorial advocating mandatory vaccination of youth against human papillomavirus (HPV), the authors hypothesized that linguistic assignment of agency to HPV (e.g., "HPV preys on millions of people") would increase perceptions of its severity, relative to a comparable message that assigned agency to humans (e.g., "Millions of people contract HPV"). In addition, the authors predicted that HPV vaccines would be perceived as more effective when agency was assigned to vaccination (e.g., "Vaccination guards people") rather than to humans (e.g., "People guard themselves through vaccination"). University students (N = 361) were randomly assigned to read one of four versions of the editorial defined by a 2 ×2 (Threat Agency × Immunization Agency) factorial design and thereafter completed a questionnaire. When agency was assigned to the virus or the vaccine, HPV was perceived as a more severe threat, vaccination was perceived as more effective, and people were more in favor of mandatory HPV vaccination. The authors concluded that linguistic agency assignment bestows potency to the agent, thereby making threats more alarming and medical interventions seem more effective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1178-1193
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Health Communication
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 3 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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