Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2017

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

High, Andrew C.


Stigma, or an identity-threatening mark, represents an enduring stressor for which individuals might require supportive communication to help them cope effectively. Whereas prior research has illuminated the cognitive and sociological features of stigma, this dissertation extends existing research to focus attention on communication as a salient feature and influence in the experience of stigma. Examining interactions in the context of stigma can illuminate the communicative factors that help or hinder coping with identity-threatening stressors and provide a more nuanced understanding of how communication contributes to the experience of stigma.

The current study examines how variations in source and message factors during a supportive conversation influence a person’s affect and internalized stigma regarding a devalued trait. Specifically, the project draws upon social identity theory to examine how in-group and out-group support providers impact coping with a stigmatized stressor. To expand the concept of social identity, this study also examines the potential impact of a moderate out-group support provider, or a provider who is perceived to be more similar to the support receiver relative to others. Regarding message factors, the study examines the locus of a supportive conversation, or whether a conversation is provider- or receiver-focused, as a meaningful variation in supportive interactions regarding stigma. Finally, because stigma is an enduring stressor, this study tests whether the effects of supportive interactions last over the course of three weeks.

The study used an interaction-based experiment to test how the social identity of a support provider and the locus of a supportive conversation influence people’s perceptions of stigma and affect improvement. Participants were primed to view the communication studies major as a stigmatized trait, before having a supportive conversation with a confederate who was trained to enact one of the six experimental conditions. Specifically, confederates enacted one of the three provider identity manipulations (i.e., in-group, moderate out-group, out-group) while varying the locus of the supportive conversation (i.e., provider-focused, receiver-focused). Participants assessed their affect improvement and internalized stigma immediately following the interaction. Furthermore, participants were invited to participate in a follow-up survey three weeks after the interaction, wherein they again assessed their affect and internalized stigma.

Results suggest that nuances within supportive interactions affect how a person copes with stigma. Prior to engaging in a supportive interaction, people reported feeling less stigmatized after being introduced to a moderate out-group provider compared to an in-group or out-group support provider. Following the supportive interaction, people felt significantly less stigmatized after interacting with moderate out-group and in-group support providers compared to a support provider who was a member of an out-group. Analyses also revealed interaction effects. Generally, participants in this study felt less stigmatized when receiving provider-focused support from in-group and moderate out-group members, but reported better outcomes when out-group members were receiver-focused. Provider- and receiver-focused messages differ; however, the effects of those messages depend upon the identity of the person who is offering them. The interactive effects of supportive interactions lasted over the course of three weeks. Results extend research on stigma and supportive communication, while generating practical recommendations that improve supportive interactions in this context.


x, 166 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 84-96).


Copyright © 2017 Jenny Linnea Crowley

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Communication Commons