Doctoral Dissertation Research in DRMS: Harnessing Anger to Promote Activism: Exploring the Efficacy and Emotional Flow of Persuasive Anger Appeals

Project: Research project

Project Details


Strategic communicators are increasingly interested in ways to galvanize the public and policymakers to take action to offset clear threats to human and planetary health. To motivate civic engagement with health and environmental issues, communicators would benefit from exploring messaging strategies that go beyond informational portrayals of an issue to engage audiences on an emotional level. To this end, this research explores the viability of persuasive anger appeals. According to persuasion theory, anger-arousing messages must not only evoke anger in order to change attitudes and behaviors; they must also instill beliefs about the efficacy of taking action. The theory, however, has been imprecise about what those efficacy beliefs entail. Because anger tends to motivate a desire to retaliate against a perceived wrongdoer, it follows that anger may have the strongest effects on persuasive outcomes when the audience believes that a particular action will punish the wrongdoer, a new concept the researchers call retributive efficacy. As such, we expect an anger appeal to be most effective when it evokes anger toward culprits of these harms and then communicates how a recommended response will effectively punish the offender.

In examining persuasive anger appeals, the researchers use two issues for which there is scientific consensus about the magnitude of the problem and the need for collective solutions. Three studies examine how to design messages that harness anger about perceived injustices (referred to as moral anger) and how to translate that emotion into activism. Study 1 uses a cross-sectional survey design to validate a proposed measure of retributive efficacy. Studies 2 and 3 build on the first study by experimentally testing messages that instill moral anger and retributive efficacy. Additionally, study 3 explores the extent to which evoked anger temporally evolves during exposure to such messages -- a phenomenon called emotional flow. Study findings offer risk communicators direct, theory-informed guidance on how to craft maximally effective persuasive appeals to anger. The research also contribute to our theoretical understanding of anger appeals, which have received far less scholarly attention than appeals to other emotions like fear or humor.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date6/15/1812/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $27,054.00


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