Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Communication and Information



First Advisor

Dr. Kimberly A. Parker

Second Advisor

Dr. Bobi Ivanov


The term “wicked problems” is used to describe a constellation of social issues that are deeply entangled (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Although these social messes affect everyone in society, some people suffer more than others (Ackoff, 1974). Nevertheless, tackling wicked problems begins with recognizing our shared responsibility to ease the misfortune of others (Rittel & Webber, 1973). As such, they provide an ideal context to investigate the persuasive effectiveness of messages that encourage the protection of others (i.e., other-protection messages). Wicked problems, such as the opioid crisis and food insecurity, need strategies that compel individuals to engage in prosocial action (i.e., any action intended to benefit another; Batson & Powell, 2003).

Persuasion scholars have long understood that emotional engagement is useful for driving a specific change in attitudes and behavior (Dillard, 2019; Dillard & Nabi, 2006). Theoretical explanations and empirical research have primarily focused on fear-based messages (see Nabi, 2002). Whereas fear may be one emotion to elicit self-protection, compassion is better suited to motivate the protection of others (Shelton & Rogers, 1981). Messages that elicit compassion—the distinct feeling of warmth, concern, and care for another that arises when observing another’s undeserved suffering and the subsequent desire to protect others by alleviating their suffering (Goetz et al., 2010)—may offer a promising approach to addressing wicked social problems, such as food insecurity and the opioid crisis.

This dissertation proposes a modified version of the protection motivation theory (PMT; Rogers, 1975) as a suitable explanation for how appeals to threatening emotions—including compassion—are received and processed. The current investigation included formative research (Study 1) and an initial experimental test of other-protection messages, specifically those designed to elicit compassion (Study 2). Although the results from Study 2 indicate that the messages did not generate the desired persuasive outcomes, post hoc analyses demonstrated preliminary support for the theoretical relationships and underlying mechanisms proposed by the modified PMT.

Recommendations are offered to strengthen message design manipulations in subsequent experimental testing. The discussion of findings outlines how future research can continue exploring communication theory as a means of persuading individuals to support causes that protect others from suffering.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

This study was supported by the University of Kentucky Graduate Student Congress Research Award in 2021.

Available for download on Monday, April 28, 2025

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