What is it about?

Looking at a science museum exhibit about heart disease uncovered a ubiquitous form of dissimulation hiding in plain sight. What's going at a science museum? The answer seems obvious. We are viewing factual information. But health promotion messages do more than just provide facts. They also try to get us to see ourselves as a candidate for disease, to the extent that we don’t exercise as much as we should, or like junk food, or are packing a few extra pounds. The message is imperative--stop whatever you're doing, and make a change before it’s too late! But it turns out, people don't like being told what to do. Aha--that's when the imperative goes undercover. Its happening to us every day, but surprisingly it goes under the radar, even though it is easy enough to identify. This study of a science museum exhibit brings to the surface these undercover medical imperatives.

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Why is it important?

According to theories of "psychological reactance" being bossy can have a boomerang effect. We react negatively when you tell us, flat out, what to do. Indirect directives are orders or suggestions in the guise of a statement. Here are some examples... "Only you can prevent forest fires." "Seat belts save lives." "Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health." While they seem like suggestions or orders as well as statements, scholarly research has not really pointed out the difference. Not just for health promotion messages, but for advertisements, marketing, etc. This paper is one small step towards surfacing hidden agendas, whenever commands are disguised as statements.


The science museum is a noisy, immersive environment where verbal messages are enriched by videos, audio recordings and 3D models. Immersing myself in this atmosphere exposed me to a sustained health message incorporating facts, commands and even diagnoses. There are not many health communication studies of science museums, and this paper was a 'light bulb' moment for me, suggesting new ways of looking at multimedia communication.

David Lee
New York City College of Technology

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: A Cardiology Exhibit at a Science Museum, Viewed as Speech Acts in Sequence, Health Communication, February 2018, Taylor & Francis,
DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2018.1432962.
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