Using stories to battle unintentional injuries: narratives in safety and health communication

Soc Sci Med. 2010 May;70(9):1441-9. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.12.036. Epub 2010 Feb 12.


After 14 years of rising death rates due to unintentional injuries in the U.S., it is time to ask how safety messages can be redesigned to have a greater impact on risky behavior. To this end, many researchers have called for a new, narrative approach to prevention messages-based on persuasive stories about people who have suffered injuries and illnesses in the past. Still, there is scant evidence that story-based communications are more effective than equivalent non-narrative messages at changing actual (rather than self-reported) safety and health behavior. Our research examined the impact of injury stories on actual safety behavior in a controlled experimental setting at a US university. Teams of participants assembled a product (a child's swing) using written instructions. The instructions contained safety messages targeting assembly mistakes that have been linked to serious injuries in children who play on swings. Participant teams were randomly assigned to three conditions: assembly instructions containing story-based safety messages, instructions with concrete (but non-anecdotal) safety messages, and instructions with traditional abstract safety messages. After adjustment for covariates, story-based messages resulted in a 19 percent improvement in safety behavior, compared with non-narrative communications. Importantly, injury stories did not create undue fear of the message object, demonstrating that brief anecdotes about accident victims can convince people to take reasonable precautions without creating unwarranted alarm about risks.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Accident Prevention / methods*
  • Consumer Product Safety
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Promotion / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Narration*
  • Persuasive Communication*
  • Risk-Taking
  • Wounds and Injuries / prevention & control*
  • Young Adult