Don't let the flu catch you: agency assignment in printed educational materials about the H1N1 influenza virus

J Health Commun. 2013;18(6):740-56. doi: 10.1080/10810730.2012.727950. Epub 2012 Dec 5.


In English and in other languages, the agency for viral transmission can be grammatically assigned to people (e.g., Thousands may contract H1N1) or to the virus itself (e.g., H1N1 may infect thousands). These assignment options shape different conceptions of transmission as attributable either to social contact within one's control or to pursuit of an active predator. The authors tested the effect of agency assignment and agentic images on young adults' (N = 246) reactions to educational materials about H1N1 influenza. The authors hypothesized that assigning agency to the virus would heighten perceived severity and personal susceptibility relative to human agency assignment. Results were consistent with this hypothesis, indicating that virus agency increased perceptions of severity, personal susceptibility, and reported intentions to seek vaccination relative to human agency. The image manipulation did not directly affect these factors. The findings suggest that strategic agency assignment can improve the effectiveness of educational materials about influenza and other health threats.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype*
  • Influenza, Human / prevention & control*
  • Male
  • Pamphlets
  • Patient Education as Topic / methods*
  • Young Adult