The role of positive character appraisal in narrative messages designed to reduce social distance: An experiment in genetic stigmatization reduction

Open Access
Baker, Michelle Kerry
Graduate Program:
Mass Communications
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 13, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Fuyuan Shen, Dissertation Advisor
  • Mary Beth Oliver, Committee Member
  • George Anghelcev, Committee Member
  • Rachel Annette Smith, Committee Member
  • stigmatization
  • stigma reduction
  • genetic stigma
  • alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
  • narratives
  • positive character appraisal
Many narrative stigmatization reduction campaigns are serial dramas that include several character types: positive characters who model emotions, attitudes, and behaviors accepting toward stigmatized persons, transitional characters who change from stigmatizing to non-stigmatizing, and negative characters who stigmatize others (Rogers et al., 1999). Yet many stigmatization reduction messages are brief, and therefore cannot include numerous characters. For this reason, such messages often include only the individual with the stigmatized condition as the primary character. However, non-stigmatized individuals who choose to associate with stigmatized others (empathic individuals, referred to as “the wise” by Goffman, 1963), may be powerful role models in brief narratives designed to reduce stigmatization. Therefore, it is crucial, both theoretically and practically, to understand how such characters may function as role models. To this end, this experimental research (N = 170) explores the effect of positive, transitional, and negative protagonists in brief narrative messages designed to reduce stigmatization of persons diagnosed with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD), a rare genetic condition that leads to pulmonary and liver disease. Results indicated that positive and transitional protagonists are more effective in reducing stigmatization than negative protagonists. Exploration of the psychological processes mediating this reduced stigmatization, operationalized as reduced social distance, revealed that positive character appraisal of the protagonist, not character identification with the protagonist, was the primary mechanism that led to reduced stigmatization. Further, different processes mediated stigmatization reduction for positive/transitional and negative protagonists. Neither empathy with the protagonist nor empathy with the character diagnosed with AATD led to significant stigmatization reduction. These findings have theoretical and practical implications.