Testing the effects of certain versus hypothetical language in health risk messages

Sherri Jean Katz, Sahara Byrne, Alan D. Mathios, Rosemary J. Avery, Michael C. Dorf, Amelia Greiner Safi, Jeff Niederdeppe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper tests how certainty conveyed through language can be harnessed to enhance the effectiveness of health risk messages. We conducted experiments with low-income, adult smokers (n = 317) and middle schoolers (n = 321) on pictorial cigarette warning labels. We manipulated hypotheticality of risk through verb modality: present tense, may, can, and will. For adult smokers, present tense led to greater health risk beliefs, compared to hypothetical, among adult males but not females. For youth, contrary to what might seem intuitive, the hypothetical may verb was more effective than the present tense language in promoting health risk beliefs, which was associated with reduced susceptibility to use cigarettes. We discuss the findings in relation applications of construal level theory to health communication.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-69
Number of pages23
JournalCommunication Monographs
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and FDA Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) (grant number R01-HD079612). The funders played no role in the study design; collection, analysis and interpretation of data; the writing of the manuscript; or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, © 2019 National Communication Association.


  • Construal level theory
  • health risks
  • hypothetical language
  • tobacco
  • warning labels

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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