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Psychological Research Applied to Real-World Problems: Exploring Messaging Strategies for a Universal Basic Foods Program

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By: Heidi Vuletich, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

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Metro Caring, located in Denver, is an organization committed to addressing food insecurity by providing nutritious food and support services to individuals and families in need. One of their objectives is to pilot a Universal Basic Foods Program that ensures consistent access to essential and culturally relevant food items for all members of the community.

Students in Social Psychology (PSYC 2740) partnered with Metro Caring to design and test messaging campaigns aimed at garnering support for this Universal Basic Foods Program. We worked collaboratively with Metro Caring to develop messages that varied along specific dimensions. Our project’s primary objective was to experimentally evaluate the impact these strategies had on people’s attitudes and their perceptions of the program.

Students collected data from approximately 600 online participants across two experiments. In one experiment, they tested the effects of different messaging content. Metro Caring was interested in knowing if drawing attention to the systemic issues that lead to food insecurity, rather than just describing food insecurity as an issue, would lead to different attitudes about the program. In the other experiment, students tested whether alternative program names would be perceived more positively than the original program name. Additionally, students analyzed attitude differences by participant socioeconomic status, race, and political affiliation.

Working collaboratively as co-authors—much like in real scientific collaborations—students drafted a 50+ page report with findings for Metro Caring. They highlighted the main results of the experiments (the messaging content did not impact people’s attitudes or perceptions about the program, but the program name did) and described in detail how attitudes differed by participant demographics. Our partners from Metro Caring will use the results to inform their campaign. The students gained experiential knowledge about the scientific process and how psychological research can inform real-world problems.

Here are some reflections from our students on their experiences:

"Presenting to our community partners and explaining the data made me proud of our class. We came together to help Metro Caring achieve their goals."

"This project opened my eyes to how unconscious influences shape attitudes, even towards important issues like public policy."

“Participating in this project enhanced my understanding of collaboration and co-authorship. It felt meaningful to contribute to something real."

"This project provided valuable insights into applied research and community engagement. It reinforced the importance of addressing social issues collaboratively."

Our community-engaged project is an example of a meaningful collaboration between students and a community partner. By applying social psychology principles to real-world challenges, we gained understanding of the potential for academic research to drive positive change in our community. We are grateful for our partnership with Metro Caring, all that we learned from them, and the opportunity to contribute to their mission of ending food insecurity.