New research indicates that aggressive messages from science communicators can amplify the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and increase compliance with measures intended to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. But the study, which appears in Public Understanding of Science, also suggests that such messages can backfire among those who feel psychologically distant from the communicator.

“Our interests in this topic (i.e., aggressive communication style and psychological distance) stem from the observation that public discussions on seemingly neutral and objective issues such as COVID-19 prevention have become increasingly belligerent and hostile in the recent years,” said study authors Haoran Chu, Shupei Yuan, and Sixiao Liu in a joint response to PsyPost’s inquiries.

“One of the salient examples is the term ‘COVIDiot’, which was used to attack people who do not follow public health guidelines on COVID-19 prevention. We were thus interested in seeing if the use of aggressive communication style would influence people’s acceptance of scientific recommendations associated with COVID-19.”

“In addition to that, we were also interested in studying if the effects of communication styles are contingent on the relationship between the communicators and their audience. As more people take on the role of ‘science communicator’ to spread and defend scientific information in different settings (e.g., on Twitter), it would be meaningful to examine how their language use influences the acceptance of scientific information, depending on the characteristics of their relationships with different audiences.”

In the study, 464 university students were asked to read a letter from a doctor who was either described as being from a local or an out-of-state hospital, and that was either written in a neutral or aggressive style. For example, the letter written in an aggressive style included sentences such as: “If anyone hears from family or friends who still think this is ‘no big deal,’ or that the USA’s response has been excessive, please know that they are blind, or just STUPID.”

After reading the letter, the participants responded to a variety of questions assessing their perceptions of the doctor and of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers found that the participants were more likely to view the aggressive letter as unusual and inappropriate for a doctor, compared to the neutral letter. This perceived norm violation was associated with reduced likability of the doctor among participants who felt the doctor was different from them and believed the doctor did not think like them.

The results suggest that “being aggressive to people who are reluctant to follow scientific recommendations with words such as ‘COVIDiot’ may backfire, especially when the audience perceives the communicator as someone distant to them,” Chu and his colleagues told PsyPost. “We thus advise communicators to use more objective and less emotional/hostile language when speaking to an unfamiliar audience.”

But the researchers also found that, compared to the neutral style, the aggressive style was associated with stronger support for COVID-19 safety measures, such as social distancing, stay-at-home orders issued by state governments, and the temporary closure of non-essential businesses. Among those who felt psychologically close to the doctor, the more the aggressive letter violated the expected communication styles, the more they viewed COVID-19 as an urgent risk.

“An aggressive communication style may enhance audience acceptance of scientific recommendation when it is used in more socially close settings. Having teeth in science communication may highlight the urgency of risks such as COVID-19 and enhance audience acceptance of recommendations made by the communicators, but only when they feel that the communicator is someone they are close to or familiar with,” the researchers explained.

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“For one, we tested our framework with college students in three states (Illinois, New York, and Texas), and one needs to use caution when generalizing these findings. We are now working on a new project that examines if such effects hold among the general population and if it would influence people intention to follow other scientific recommendations such as getting a COVID-19 vaccine,” Chu and his colleagues said.

“Another caveat is that though aggressive communication style may lead to some positive outcomes in certain settings, it may also exacerbate the polarization and politicization of public opinions. Our research team is thus working on this to examine the long-term effect of aggressive science communication.”

The study, “Call them COVIDiots: Exploring the effects of aggressive communication style and psychological distance in the communication of COVID-19“, was published January 30, 2021.