Positive Outcomes For Health Challenges

Published on July 18, 2017

Bauer College Research Targets Increasing Optimism by Relying on Cultural Cues

As part of a study conducted on increasing optimism, Marketing & Entrepreneurship Assistant Professor Melanie Rudd, along with co-authors, found that language makes a difference in how optimistic we are.

When someone we love is in the midst of a health challenge, or trying to launch a lifestyle change like eating healthier or exercising more, we all want to know the things we can do or say for the best outcome.

A Bauer College researcher has found that language that’s culturally specific – whether it’s self-talk or information shared by health providers – makes a big difference in how optimistic we are about the possibility of achieving our goal.

Assistant Professor of Marketing and Entrepreneurship Melanie Rudd is one of the co-authors of “Cultivating Optimism: How to Frame Your Future during a Health Challenge,” forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Research has shown that, when people are facing a health challenge, their optimism about recovering can have a huge impact on their mental and physical health,” Rudd said. “But despite the clear benefits of optimism, relatively little is known about how to cultivate optimism about one’s future health. Our research sought to address this issue by asking whether certain ways of imagining the process of recovering from a health challenge were better for optimism than others.”

The researchers specifically compared two different approaches that people might adopt when imagining their recovery process — the initiator frame (a person focuses on imagining how they will act, regardless of the situations or events they might encounter) and the responder frame (a person focuses on imagining how they will respond to the situations or events they might encounter).

“People’s cultural background has been found to impact them in a variety of ways–it can influence their emotions, their behaviors, and the way they think,” Rudd said. “We predicted that people from cultures that are traditionally independent (e.g., Americans) would experience greater optimism about recovering from a health challenge if they adopted an initiator frame and thought about their ‘actions’ and how they would ‘act’ when imagining their future recovery process, whereas people from cultures that are traditionally interdependent (e.g., Chinese) would experience greater optimism about recovering if they adopted a responder frame and thought about their ‘responses’ and how they would ‘respond’ to situations they might encounter when imagining their recovery process.”

The researchers not only found evidence for these predictions, but found that “these optimism effects held for distinct health challenges (cancer, diabetes, flood-related illness, traumatic injury) across both single-country (e.g., Asian American vs. European American) and cross-country (e.g., USA vs. China) samples. Moreover, the greater optimism that people experienced was shown to positively impact a variety of health outcomes and decisions ranging from anticipated energy, physical endurance, and willingness to take on more challenging physical therapy, to intentions to get vaccinated, stick to a doctor recommended diet, and undertake a physically strenuous vacation,” said Rudd.

One takeaway is that, “Something as simple as the frame you adopt when envisioning the process of achieving a goal can have important consequences for your optimism,” Rudd said.

More practically, the research also offers guidance to health care providers, health-oriented businesses, policy-makers and others who communicate with consumers about health related matters.

“Our work suggests that if one fails to consider a person’s cultural background when making these types of recommendations or when designing marketing stimuli, one may inadvertently hinder that person’s ability to maximize their optimism,” Rudd said.

By Julie Bonnin