Call them COVIDiots: Exploring the effects of aggressive communication style and psychological distance in the communication of COVID-19

Public Underst Sci. 2021 Apr;30(3):240-257. doi: 10.1177/0963662521989191. Epub 2021 Jan 30.


This study examined the influences of perceived distance to communicator on the effects of aggressive style (i.e. personal attacks and intense languages) in communicating scientific issues such as COVID-19 to the public. With a multi-site experiment (N = 464), we found that aggression led to a heightened violation of expected social norm regarding communication styles. However, the interpretation of violation varied depending on the individual's perceived distance to the communicator. Close distance articulated the urgency and severity of COVID-19 risks conveyed with aggression, which further increased compliance with the message. Far distance perception amplified aggression's negative influence on writer likeability. The findings showed that aggressive communication may generate positive outcomes when dealing with public understanding of scientific issues such as COVID-19, but communicators need to build a closer connection with their audience.

Keywords: COVID-19; aggressive communication; expectancy violation; psychological distance.