Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Joseph N. Cappella


The dissertation study examines the role of emotion and visual imagery in framing effects on judgments and decision-making. More specifically, it asks whether emotion is the mechanism that accounts for the link between framing of messages and the effects of those messages. Its broadest theoretical goal is to illuminate how people aggregate and integrate information from various elements of a message in order to form a policy preference. A series of experimental studies were conducted. The main experiment systematically replicated a study (Levin and Chapman, 1993) that had added disease populations characteristics (AIDS and leukemia patients) to Tversky and Kahneman’s (1981) classic framing effects study. By adding emotion-laden visual portrayals, the current study tried to influence previously established patterns of preferences where people assigned the least popular option in each frame to the undervalued disease population (AIDS patients). In addition, two rival mediator hypotheses were tested to explain the mechanisms by which these patterns occurred: attributions of responsibility versus compassionate response. The main experiment produced significant differences in preferences. Participants who saw compassionate visual portrayals of AIDS patients were significantly less likely to assign the worst option in each frame to them. Only limited support was found for the attributions of responsibility mediating hypothesis, with AIDS responsibility ratings emerging as a potential weak mediator. At the broadest level, this study suggests that framing, characteristics of the disease population, and emotional consistency of visual portrayal are consequential for judgments. Preference patterns for subjects who saw a compassionate visual portrayal significantly differed from those who saw an uncompassionate portrayal or no image. Furthermore, when people are asked to make comparative judgments between two disease populations, their previous evaluations of the populations seem to influence preferences. Finally, visual characterizations of disease populations influence people’s preferences, specifically the facial display of emotion in an image used to represent a disease population. These findings have practical relevance for designing public health messages that seek to influence judgments related to behaviors such as giving, volunteering, establishing public policy, and allocating resources.