Date of Award

January 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Joelle C. Ruthig


Social perceptions of cancer can influence patients' illness experiences by affecting the behavior of those around a cancer patient. These perceptions can be influenced by exposure to the social phenomenon of positive thinking (PT), leading to increased perceived responsibility of the patient for negative illness outcomes. Accordingly, it is important to identify mechanisms that can diminish the effect of PT exposure on social perceptions of cancer. A pilot study was first conducted to test the effectiveness of an empathy induction intervention in reducing these negative social perceptions in the context of the study scenario, and to assess the newly developed measures of willingness to help. Within the main study, an attribution-based theoretical framework was applied to examine social perceptions within the context of a hypothetical cancer patient's illness and experience with PT. The main study examined empathy induction as a potential moderator of the effect of exposure to PT on social perceptions of cancer. A community sample of 375 young women recruited through MTurk read a hypothetical blog of either a male or female cancer patient who described one of three scenarios – a PT exposure/try PT scenario (the blogger learned about PT and endorsed it wholeheartedly), a PT exposure/did not try PT scenario (the blogger decided not to endorse PT), or a no PT/control scenario (no mention of PT). Prior to reading the blog, half of participants were exposed to an empathy induction intervention. All participants then responded to measures assessing effort attributions, perceived control, responsibility, blame, and willingness to help the blogger. For the main study, a PT Exposure (no PT exposure/control, PT exposure/did not try, PT exposure/tried) x Empathy Induction (empathy induction, no empathy induction) x Gender of Blogger (female, male), 3x2x2 factorial design was used. MANCOVA results with PT endorsement and trait empathy covariates showed that exposure to PT enhanced effort, control, and responsibility attributions for the blogger’s unsuccessful cancer outcome. There were no differences in social perceptions of a male versus a female cancer patient. Empathy induction did not significantly diminish perceptions of culpability towards the cancer patient. This study replicated the previously demonstrated link between PT exposure and perceptions of culpability for unsuccessful cancer outcomes, developed further assessments of the impact of PT exposure on willingness to help, and showed that attempts to change state empathy may be less effective in increasing willingness to help than more stable trait empathy. Findings from the current study have implications for understanding social perceptions of illness and subsequently identifying more effective means of support for cancer patients.