Agency Assignment StudyEdit

A study was performed to understand how agency assignment in health communication flyers affects the reader in terms of susceptibility and threat severity.

New Study Brings to Light the Power of Language in Health CommunicationEdit

In recent news, a new study into how the language in health communication materials such as flyers has brought enlightening information about how the actual words themselves affect the reader's perception of the condition and themselves. This is particularly important for those writing health communication pamphlets, flyers and other materials that are targeted towards informing and motivating young adults about health threats and ways to avoid them. 

The term Agency Assignment is defined as “the ascription of action or change to one or more entities involved in the event”. (Bell, Dragojevic & McGlone, 2014) Agency Assignment occurs in communication whether it is intentional or not. In the initial investigation and in the present study, the researchers focused on human agency and threat agency. Human agency assigns responsibility to humans where threat agency assigns it to the threat itself. Human agency uses phrases like "Humans contract E.Coli" while threat or bacteria agency use phrases like "E.Coli infects humans".(Bell, Dragojevic & McGlone, 2014)


Example of a Health Communication Flyer with Virus Agency


Example of Health Communication using Human Agency


The initial investigation was performed during the height of the pandemic resulting from the H1N1 virus. The researchers wanted to explore the reactions of young adults in reference to printed materials about the virus. They created materials using both human agency and threat agency. The result was there was a significant increase in perceptions of threat severity, susceptibility, response efficacy and vaccine intentions when threat agency language was used.

In the present study, the researchers used four bacteria known to harm humans: Shiga toxin-producing E. Coli, Necrotizing fasciitis, Salmonellosis, and Carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumonia. Two flyers were created for each bacteria using human agency and bacteria agency language. Data was collected from 719 participants, who responded to a post on Mechanical Turk, an online platform.

The majority of the participants were young adult women.

The 719 participants were required to view the flyer given to them and then answer a series of questions about it. Each question was used to determine the relationship between agency assignment and perceptions of susceptibility, severity, self efficacy,  and fear arousal.

Self Efficacy is defined as the person's belief that they can manage their health successfully. People with high self efficacy are more likely to have a healthy lifestyle and take action about their health than those with low self efficacy. (du Pre, 2010) This is important because a part of this study was done to see how the agency assignment affected the reader's response to the recommendations for prevention. The level of the reader's self efficacy, high or low, could affect the reader's response to the recommendations rather than just the agency assignment with in the text. A significant effect on fear arousal and self efficacy due to the agency assignment was not found in this research experiment. Further research is needed to determine what effects language can have on self efficacy when the recommendations to prevent disease provided on the materials are not proven effective.

However, the findings of the study showed that perceived susceptibility was higher when the bacteria agency language used in comparison to human agency language.  The participants also described the bacteria as being a more severe health threat when bacteria agency language was used. This shows that the words that we use in the creation of health communication materials does have an effect on the type of response the reader will have though further research is needed.


Bell, A. B., Dragojevic, M., & McGlone, M. S. (2014). Bacteria as bullies:Effects of linguistic agency assignment in health message. Journal of Health Communication, 19(3), 340-358.

DuPré, A. (2010). Communicating about health: Current issues and perspectives (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

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