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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Travel Grant Report by Jérôme Blondé

30.08.2017, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

University of Geneva, Switzerland; Visit to University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Thanks to the financial support of the EASP, I have been fortunate to spend five months, from January to June 2017, as a visiting postdoctoral researcher, at the University of Sussex (Brighton, United Kingdom). My visit was supervised by Peter Harris and Matthew Easterbrook and aimed to carry out a research testing the effectiveness of an identity-based intervention in reducing defensive reactions toward health-risk messages.

Indeed, even though health messages seek to encourage people to perform protective behaviours by informing them of risks that they might experience by adopting unsafe behaviours (e.g., smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol), a wealth of studies have found that these messages do not always achieve expected results. People who are most at risk have been shown to be likely to react in a defensive way and reject suggested behaviours (e.g., Block & Williams, 2002; Brown & Locker, 2009; Kessels, Ruiter, & Jansma, 2010; Liberman & Chaiken, 1992).

Following research on self-affirmation, it has been argued that health messages cause resistance because they represent threats for targeted people’s identity (e.g., Harris & Napper, 2005; Klein, Harris, Ferrer, & Zajac, 2011; see also, Freeman, Hennessy, & Marzullo, 2001). As an illustration, anti-smoking campaigns have been shown to be perceived as threatening sources for smokers’ identity, especially for those who consider such an identity as highly self-relevant (e.g., Falomir & Invernizzi, 1999). Resisting to the messages allows thus to protect one’s identity and maintain a positive self-esteem and self-integrity.

Based on current perspectives on self and identity, it is well-recognized that the self is not a unitary concept but rather a collection of multiple identities (see Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015). However, people cannot have a full accessibility to each of their identities simultaneously (McConnell, 2011; McConnell, Shoda, & Skulborstad, 2012). Once one of them gains sufficient activation in a particular situation, it becomes more easily accessible and shapes attitude and behaviour, while other identities are inhibited and thereby less influential (see Macrae, Bodenhausen, & Milne, 1995; Pittinsky, Shih, & Trahan, 2006; van Rijswijk & Ellermers, 2002). Accordingly, we suggested that health messages would only threaten one of the many people’s identities (e.g., the smoker identity in the case of anti-smoking campaigns) and that making another non-threatened identity salient before people being exposed to the message could reduce the accessibility of the threatened identity and then limit its influence on the expression of defensive responses. In addition, we hypothesized that the degree to which people perceive how the threatened and non-threatened identity overlap could moderate such effects.

The main purpose of the research I conducted during my visit was to experimentally test these hypotheses across two studies. In the first study, students were asked to read an anti-drinking campaign that informed of risks caused by the consumption of alcohol, along with some information about how to limit its impact on health. Among half of our participants, a non-threatened identity (i.e., the student identity) was made salient before the exposure to the message, while other half was assigned to a control condition with no manipulation. Participants were then asked to respond some questions measuring message acceptance, risk perception, as well as intention to reduce one’s alcohol consumption. An adaptation of the Inclusion of Other in the Self scale (IOS; Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992) was also included to measure the perceived overlap between the threatened (i.e., the alcohol drinker identity) and non-threatened identity (i.e., the student identity). Finally, participants were contacted seven days after to report their current alcohol consumption. Using the same materials and procedure, the second study aimed to examine whether the reduced accessibility to the threatening identity could act as a mediating factor. To do so, we used the “me/not me” task of Rydell, McConnell, and Beilock (2009). Unfortunately, due to a lack of participants, none of the two studies have been completed in due course. We decided, however, to continue our collaboration and re-conduct these studies in France, applying them to the context of tobacco-induced risks.

I sincerely thank Peter Harris and Matthew Easterbrook for their warm welcome and for supervising my research all along my visit at the University of Sussex. I am very thankful to them for allowing me to be part of the department of social psychology as a full member, for providing me with access to all the facilities I needed for setting up my studies, for giving me the opportunity to participate in very fascinating research group meetings, to attend to the department seminars and other scientific events, and to give several talks on my ongoing and past works. I also thank all the members of the psychology department (professors, PhD students, post-docs, and other staff members) for the many inspirational discussions we had and for their kindly help on some practical issues I had to deal with. My time at Sussex was very intellectually stimulating and encouraged me to develop new perspectives on my main focuses of research, which have already led me to create new projects and collaborations. Finally, I would like to thank the EASP, as well as the French association of social psychology (ADRIPS), for helping me make such a great experience possible.


  • Aron, A., Aron E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 596-612.
  • Block, L. G., & Williams, P. (2002). Undoing the effects of seizing and freezing: Decreasing defensive processing of personally relevant messages. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 803-833.
  • Brown, S. L., & Locker, E. (2009). Defensive responses to an emotive anti-alcohol message. Psychology & Health, 24, 517-528.
  • Falomir, J. M., & Invernizzi, F. (1999). The role of social influence and smoker identity in resistance to smoking cessation. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 58(2), 73-84. doi:10.1024//1421-0185.58.2.73.
  • Freeman, M. A., Hennessy, E. V., & Marzullo, D. M. (2001). Defensive evaluation of antismoking messages among college-age smokers: The role of possible selves. Health Psychology, 20(6), 424-433.
  • Harris, P. R., & Napper, L. (2005). Self-Affirmation and the biased processing of threatening health-risk information. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(9), 1250-1263.
  • Kang, S. K., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2015). Multiple identities in social perception and interaction: Challenges and opportunities. Annual Review of Psychology, 66(7), 1-7.
  • Kessels, L. T., Ruiter, R. A. C., & Jansma, B. M. (2010). Increased attention but more efficient disengagement: Neuroscientific evidence for defensive processing of threatening health information. Health Psychology, 29, 346-354.
  • Klein, W. M. P., Harris, P. R., Ferrer, R. A., & Zajac, L. E. (2011). Feelings of vulnerability in response to threatening messages: Effects of self-affirmation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1237-1242.
  • Liberman, A., & Chaiken, S. (1992). Defensive processing of personal relevant health messages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 669-679.
  • Macrae, C. N., Bodenhausen, G. V., & Milne, A. B. (1995). The dissection of selection in social perception: Inhibitory processes in social stereotyping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 397-407.
  • McConnell, A. R. (2011). The multiple self-aspects framework: Self-concept representation and its implications. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 3-27.
  • McConnell, A. R., Shoda, T. M., & Skulborstad, H. M. (2012). The self as a collection of multiple self-aspects: Structure, development, operation, and implications. Social Cognition, 30(4), 380-395.
  • Pittinsky, T. L., Shih, M. J., & Trahan, A. (2006). Identity cues: Evidence from and for intra-individual perspectives on positive and negative stereotyping. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 2215-2239.
  • Rydell, R. J., McConnell, A. R., & Beilock, S. L. (2009). Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 949-966.
  • van Rijswijk, W., & Ellemers, N. (2002). Context effects on the application of stereotype content to multiple categorizable targets. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 90-101.