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Normative and counter-normative stress messages and symptom reporting: Implications for health promotion and a methodological artefact for stress research


Correspondence should be addressed to Eamonn Ferguson, Personality, Social Psychology and Health (PSPH) Group, School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK (e-mail:



There is increasing use of counter-normative health messages (i.e., evidence-based health information about cause–effect relationships that run counter to shared normative beliefs, e.g., stress can lead to personal growth). The current studies examine the effect of normative and counter-normative messages about stress on levels of symptom reporting. Predictions are derived from reactance, social comparison, and self-enhancement theories.

Method and design

Two studies focus on the development of the messages, and two experimental studies examine the effect of manipulating normative and counter-normative messages on symptom reports. The final study controls for mere-measurement effects and explores the role of stress process variables (appraisals and coping).


Exposure to a normative message (stress causes ill health) results in reduced symptom reporting compared to a counter-normative message (stress provides challenge, growth, and development) and control groups. The results suggest that people may use symptom reporting strategically to indicate coping. Based on the argument that beliefs about stress and health are stored as mental models, the theoretical associations derived from stress theory are only observed when a normative message is presented.


Counter-normative stress messages may carry no tangible benefits compared to normative messages. Some stress research may suffer from inherent methodological bias when normative information is provided in information and consent sheets.

Statement of contribution

What is already known on this subject? At present, nothing is known about counter-normative health messages, despite the fact that they are becoming widely used as a public intervention.

What does this study add?

  • A clear operational definition of counter-normative messages.
  • A test of three competing theories for counter-normative messages that focus of the stress–symptom link.
  • Demonstrating for the first time, that in the domain of stress and health, counter-normative messages are at best ineffective.
  • Demonstrating for the first time that only when the stress–coping–symptom links are made explicit do the theoretical associations observed in the literature emerge. This may be a potential methodological artefact in stress research that needs to be controlled.