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Language of Online Health Forums Affect Credibility, Trust

Health forum articles that use more neutral language, rather than containing many positive adjectives, are deemed to be more trustworthy by the public, according to a new German study at the University of Münster.

These days, Internet health forums are often the first place people seek out information regarding a health issue. However, since these forums are not subject to any controls, they include not only scientific or medical information but also, frequently, imprecise or wrong advice.

Because of the complex nature of the health issues at stake, laypeople are unable to evaluate this false information and so are often influenced by other factors in the articles.

In an online experiment, participants placed greater trust in health forum authors when the articles were formulated in a neutral style, rather than containing many positive adjectives. The participants also rated these authors’ recommendations as more credible.

The findings are published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

For the study, 242 participants were asked to look at articles in a health forum which had been formulated in different ways. The articles contained an author’s assessment, in reply to a woman’s inquiry, as to how effective a certain medication was.

Depending on the experiment, the participant read either a piece of advice containing a large number of positive adjectives such as “outstanding” and “excellent,” or a comment formulated in a neutral way.

The result was that participants rated the author of the article with more extreme adjectives as being less trustworthy. They attributed to him not only a lower level of goodwill and integrity, but also with more manipulative intentions. The advice offered by the author was also considered to be less credible than that given in the neutrally-formulated article.

Surprisingly, the author’s professional background had no influence on the assessments given by the users. In the experiment, the author described himself in one case as a researcher at a university, in another case as someone representing the interests of the pharmaceutical industry.

“This is an interesting result, because in an earlier study we were able to demonstrate that a person’s profession can in fact influence the trustworthiness and credibility of their arguments,” said Dr. Lars König, who carried out the study as part of his Ph.D. thesis at the Research Training Group “Trust and Communication in a Digitized World” under Prof. Regina Jucks.

“More research would need to be done for a better understanding of the conditions under which the author’s profession is, in fact, important for readers,” he said.

Over the past few years, many authors of scientific articles or of posts in health forums have started using a positive style of language in order to underline the relevance of their research or advice and, not least, to influence readers.

As Internet forums are not subject to any controls, they include not only scientific or medical information but also, frequently, imprecise or wrong advice. Because of the complex nature of the health issues at stake, laypeople are unable to evaluate this false information and so they have to be guided by other factors in the recommendations.

The findings from the experiment are especially relevant for doctors who are increasingly contacting their patients through digital communication media. Also researchers can benefit from the findings as they try increasingly to present their latest research results and conclusions in an easy-to-understand way for the general public.

“As there are indications that any evaluation of experts’ comments also depends on the issue in question, as well as on the gender of the author and of the reader, future research should focus especially on these points,” said König.

In future research, he says, the gender of the author could be varied, for example, in order to see what impact this may have on the style of language and on how the person giving the information is rated.

Source: University of Münster 

Language of Online Health Forums Affect Credibility, Trust

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. (2020). Language of Online Health Forums Affect Credibility, Trust. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/03/21/language-of-online-health-forums-affect-credibility-trust/155145.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Mar 2020 (Originally: 21 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 21 Mar 2020
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