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To Motivate Healthy Changes, Tell a Culturally-Relevant Story

To Motivate Healthy Changes, Tell a Culturally Relevant Story

In order to successfully motivate people to make healthy changes, it is especially beneficial to tell a compelling story with culturally relevant characters, rather than just state the facts, according to researchers at the University of Southern California (USC).

In a new study, researchers looked for the best way to encourage Latin American women to get screened for cervical cancer. The findings showed that Latinas who watched a compelling, culturally relevant narrative video were more likely to seek screening compared to those who watched a video covering only the facts.

Latinas in Los Angeles County are twice as likely as white women to develop cervical cancer, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and are significantly less likely to be educated about the causes of the disease or to be screened for it.

“Latinas are the ones most at risk and yet health communication campaigns still essentially target white women,” said Sheila Murphy, Ph.D., professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Murphy, along with colleagues from the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, wanted to find a better way to communicate public health messages.

“Public health officials need to realize what advertisers have known for decades. You can’t just present facts and hope people will change their behavior. If you want your audience to engage, you have to tell them a story that they care about,” Murphy said.

For the study, they tracked a group of more than 900 randomly selected women from Los Angeles that included Mexican-American, African-American, and white women.  

The researchers found that a narrative video encouraging women to get screened for cervical cancer and featuring Mexican-American characters helped that group go from the least-screened to the most-screened within six months.

“It’s not just the narrative, it’s the cultural themes and the ethnicities of the people on screen. Telling a story stripped of those elements is, by default in the United States, just telling a ‘mainstream’ story.

“If you want to reach Mexican-American women, you have to tell a compelling, culturally relevant story,” said Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, Ph.D., of the Keck School of Medicine at USC, co-author of the study.

Study participants from each ethnicity watched one of two videos about the cause of cervical cancer and how to detect it via Pap tests. One of the videos, “The Tamale Lesson,” featured a narrative story about a Mexican-American family’s preparation for a daughter’s quinceañera. The other, “It’s Time,” presented the same facts but with doctors and patients explaining them.

“Both the narrative and non-narrative films were produced by the same team and were high-quality videos that did a good job of explaining the reasons to have a Pap test. The only difference is the way the information is presented,” Murphy said.

The videos were crafted by Doe Mayer and Jeremy Kagan at the cinematic arts school’s Change Making Media Lab.

Before watching the videos, only about 32 percent of the Mexican-American women had been following the recommended cervical cancer screening guidelines. Comparatively, about half of African-American and white women had a Pap test in the past two years.

Six months later, 83 percent of Mexican-American women who watched “The Tamale Lesson” were in compliance, compared to 73 percent of Mexican-American women who watched “It’s Time.”

The researchers said they hope the findings and future research along these lines will help inform the way public health officials craft health messages.

Their findings are published by American Journal of Public Health.

Source: University of Southern California


To Motivate Healthy Changes, Tell a Culturally Relevant Story

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). To Motivate Healthy Changes, Tell a Culturally Relevant Story. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 9 May 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.