Date of Award

January 2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Joelle Ruthig


When witnessing a difficult event, such as a health crisis, a common initial response is to ask why it happened. The answer to this question then influences the observers' reaction, in that their attitudes and beliefs influence how they respond to the person who suffered the health crisis. In this way, social perceptions of cancer can have a tremendous influence on a patient's illness experience and that influence can be either beneficial or unintentionally detrimental. Within the current study an attribution-based theoretical framework was applied and the social phenomena of positive thinking (PT) was considered, in an attempt to understand how people view and respond to others' cancer experiences. The role of individual differences in just world beliefs, dispositional optimism, and empathy was also explored. Undergraduate college students (N = 233) read a hypothetical blog of a cancer patient, who described one of three scenarios - a PT exposure/try PT scenario (in which the blogger learned about PT and endorsed it wholeheartedly), a PT exposure/did not try PT scenario (in which the blogger decided not to endorse PT), or a no PT/control scenario (in which there was no mention of PT). Participants then responded to measures assessing the blogger's effort, control, and responsibility for the cancer outcome, as well as how much they blamed the blogger for the outcome, and how willing they were to help the blogger. Participants' endorsement of PT, dispositional optimism, empathy, and just world beliefs were also assessed. A 2 Gender of Participant/Blogger (male, female) x 3 PT Exposure (control/no PT exposure, PT Exposure/did not try, PT Exposure/Tried) MANCOVA (with the PT endorsement covariate) indicated that exposure to PT enhanced effort attributions, control perceptions, and perceptions of responsibility for the unsuccessful cancer outcome. Gender differences emerged among participants in which men attributed more effort, control and responsibility to the male blogger than women attributed to the female blogger, but women were more willing to help the blogger than men were. Finally, linear regression analyses indicated that individual differences in empathy impacted attributions of control, responsibility, blame, and willingness to help. Findings from the current study have implications for understanding how positive thinking affects social perceptions of cancer and the role that empathy plays in those perceptions.