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Adding Religion To Anti-Alcohol PSAs Doesn't Work, Study Finds

By Keri Blakinger 05/23/16

The study found that the addition of religious overtones in public service announcements caused viewers to question the motives behind the message.

Adding Religion To Anti-Alcohol PSAs Doesn't Work, Study Finds

Religious rhetoric doesn’t make PSAs any more effective, according to a study published in the Journal of Religion and Health

Researchers at Michigan State University recently decided to take a look at the use of religious messages in anti-alcohol public service announcements employed in heavily Muslim countries in the Middle East. In those regions, it might seem likely that the strong religious presence might make religious messages an effective part of PSAs—but research shows otherwise, apparently. 

Saleem Alhabash, an MSU assistant professor, studied the connection using a group of students from his native Palestine—and found that Quran quotes in PSAs did not make people more inclined to oppose alcohol consumption.

For the study, participants were shown two different Facebook videos discouraging drinking. One of those videos featured a religious message, while the other did not. After they finished watching the videos, participants were asked if they wanted to participate in anti-alcohol campaigning.

"What we found is where there is religious rhetoric, people do not want to do this as much as those who are exposed to the same exact message, only without the religious message," Alhabash said.

Basically, it’s not just that religious messages don’t help, they actually make people less likely to become anti-alcohol advocates. 

"Contrary to popular or stereotypical belief, adding religious rhetoric to a health message is not going to work in this particular context," said Alhabash. "One would think that would be the case in this region where people often blindly follow anything religious. But our results show otherwise."

The reason, Alhabash posited, has to do with something called psychological reactance, which describes a phenomenon familiar to parents of teenagers everywhere. In a nutshell, psychological reactance means that if you’re told not to do something, you want to do it more.

"Then, when you put a religious spin on it, it becomes too intense to handle," the researcher said. "The viewer may question motives. Is someone doing this for religious reasons or for more civil, altruistic reasons?"

To be clear, the study was focused on the use of religious messages in public service announcements, not the use of religious principles in drug treatment—so the findings don’t relate to popular 12-step programs. 

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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