Tag Archives: Marc T. Kiviniemi

Sunburned and scared: Fear motivates positive health behaviors, study shows

2 Jul
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

“A little sun never hurt nobody,” has always been one of my mottos growing up in the Sunshine state.

When I was a child, my somewhat peculiar father would always tell us that sunscreen was no good.  A frequent reader of  “all-natural” health books, he was convinced that the chemicals in sunscreen were the culprits of skin cancer, not the actual UV rays.

As children, my siblings and I were accustomed to the yearly “this-is-the-worst-sunburn-of-my-life” summer burn. I remember sleeping on my back all night unable to move. But my pink skin would heal and each sunburn after that was “harmless” and didn’t hurt. I didn’t necessarily believe my father, but I did like the look of a sun-kissed glow,  so I didn’t protest.

But, as I am getting older, I’m paying much more attention to how I will look in 10 years, and I’ve gotten better at wearing sunscreen. Still working on the reapplying part.

I don’t want to have wrinkles at 30 years old.

But then again, my years as a lifeguard and swim instructor are bound to catch up with me someday.

A new study found that I’m not alone in my motivation to wear sunscreen.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo found that the fear of skin cancer (and maybe premature wrinkles) is what motivates people to wear sunscreen, not statistics about the likelihood of developing skin cancer. Emotions play a key role in the summertime positive health behavior of slathering on protective lotion.

“Most health behavior studies don’t account for the more visceral, emotional reactions that lead people to do risky behaviors, like eat junk food or ignore the protective benefits of sunscreen,” said Marc Kiviniemi, lead researcher and assistant professor of community health and health behavior at the University of Buffalo.

Kivineimi and his team analyzed data from the National Cancer Institute.  Fifteen hundred random participants who had never had skin cancer were asked how often they used sunscreen and how much they feared skin cancer.

“Our research looked at the interplay of emotions and facts in decision making– that is, how do cognitive and affective risks jointly work to influence behavior?”  Kiviniemi said. “The nature of their interrelation as an influence on behavior has not been examined until this study.”

Kiviniemi said the results of the study can aid public health professionals in raising awareness about skin cancer and the importance of sunscreen use.

“These findings show that clinicians might want to think more about feelings when encouraging people to use sunscreen,” he said. “In addition to providing educational information about risk, encouraging people to consider how they feel about cancer and how worried they are about it might inspire preventive behaviors.”

But there are many different ways to induce this type of fear, and researchers still have more questions regarding the right amount of fear to influence positive health behavior.

Kiviniemi’s next project is to examine the same relationship among other behaviors such as getting a colonoscopy and using condoms.

“This study is important because most of what we do in public health communications focuses on spreading knowledge and information,” he said. “By not addressing emotions, we’re potentially missing a rich influence on behavior when interventions don’t address feelings.”