Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Fear appeals

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Fear appeals:
How can fear appeals be used to motivate behaviour and how effective are they?

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter explores fear appeal including its history, successes, limitations and the developing physiological theories that have expanded our use and understanding of this motivator. Furthermore, this chapter addresses the controversies and contradicting theories regarding fear appeal and the varied results of multiple studies[vague].

Focus questions

Are there any public service announcements that have really stuck with you through out the years?

Was the PSA effective in motivating you to change a behaviour?

If yes, can you recall why it was effective for you?

What are Fear Appeals?[edit | edit source]

Person with fear

A term used in Marketing, Sociology and Psychology[grammar?]. Fear appeals are widely used in health communication and marketing[factual?]. Fear appeal in psychology is defined as a persuasive message designed to evoke fear by illustrating the severity of an external threat, and the receiver’s vulnerability to that threat[factual?]. Fear appeal seeks to alleviate the receiver’s fear by describing a coping response that are both effective and easily performed by the receiver (Roberto et al., 2018). The intrinsic belief is that the use of fear appeal is the supposition that when emotional tension is evoked, the viewer will become more motivated to accept the recommendations advocated by the communicator (Janis & Feshbach, 1953). A Fear appeal is comprised of two components. The first is the threat factor – this is the identification of danger that exists in the receiver’s environment that is severe and likely to strike. The second component is efficacy (response effectiveness), which identifies a response to counter the threat, that is easy to perform (self-efficacy) (Roberto et al., 2018).

Theoretical Approaches to Fear Appeal[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

A Brief history of Theoretical Approaches to Fear Appeal[edit | edit source]

During the early 1950’s[grammar?], a collective of US Public Health Services began to undertake research into health promotion and disease prevention[factual?]. This approach developed due to an expansive ineffectiveness to accept disease preventatives and screening tests for early detection and a lack of compliance with medical regimes (Rosenstock, 1974). This led to an increase in research into health beliefs and attitudes, giving rise to cognitive health behaviour theories. Cognitive health behaviour theories assert that a diminutive number of beliefs and attitudes are conducive to the implementation of precautionary health behaviours (Clark et al., 2020). Several theoretical frameworks have contributed to the study of fear appeals. However, according to Witte (1992), there are the major categories that contributed to three separate time periods in the development of fear appeal theories: (a) the drive models (Hovland et al., 1953; Janis, 1967), (b) the parallel response model (Leventhal, 1970), and (c) the value expectancy theories (Rogers, 1975).

Feature box: Early Research on Fear Appeal

In 1953[factual?], an experiment was conducted that investigated the consequences of using fear appeals in persuasive communications to attempt to motivate people to conform to a set of health recommendations. The experimenters achieved this through the use of illustrated lectures on dental hygiene presented in three separate methods. These methods varied in intensity; the strong appeal, the moderate appeal and the minimal appeal. The strong appeal highlighted and graphically demonstrated the risk of pain, disease and body damage while the moderate appeal described the same dangers in a milder manner, using a more factual approach. However, the minimal appeal seldom referred to the unpleasant consequences of improper hygiene. Although each group varied in the amount of fear-arousing material presented, the three forms of the communication contained the same essential information and the same set of recommendations. The participants were 200 students around the age of 15 and were divided into four groups, including a control group which was exposed to fear-arousing material not relevant to dental hygiene. Each group was given a questionnaire prior (to determine the participants[grammar?] general dental hygiene) to the lecture on dental hygiene, one directly after, and another administered the week following the communication. The results revealed that the greatest amount of conformity was produced by the groups which viewed the least amount of fear-arousing material. In fact, there was no significant difference between the strong appeal and the control group.

The findings indicated that the minimal appeal was the most effective form of communication, as it was found to elicit more resistance to subsequent counterpropaganda. The minimal appeal also had a higher incidence of verbal adherence which could indicate a greater degree of behavioural conformity. Thus, the results indicated that although the strong appeal was effective in arousing interest, the material failed to increase the effectiveness of the communication. Contrary to the assumption that fear-arousing stimuli in mass communication increases the likelihood of the audience becoming more motivated to accept reassuring recommendations, the outcome of the study shows otherwise. However, this does not completely undermine the use of fear-arousing communications. Moreover, it should be noted there were two visible limitations within the experiment; generalisability and the self-report nature of the questionnaires. The sample was selected from a pool of young students, and presented using only one form of communication and in an educational setting. The participants also self-reported, which may lead to misrepresentation and an inaccurate recording of data due to participant disinclination, ambivalence or confusion. Therefore, further research is necessary using other media, topics and fear-eliciting stimuli in a range of communication settings (Janis & Feshbach, 1953).

The Drive Model(s)[edit | edit source]

Drive theory

The earliest research of fear appeals integrated variations of drive theories in an effort to provide scientific explanations for fear appeals (Witte & Allen, 2000). Hovland et al., (1953) proposed in the fear-as-acquired drive model that fear is parallel to hunger, therein, when individuals experience something as aversive, they are motivated to decrease it. In addition, the removal of an unpleasant stimulus is rewarding and in turn, reinforces that behaviour (Meczkowski et al., 2016). Janis (1967),[grammar?] argued that some fear arousal was necessary to elicit motivation, but too much fear would culminate in maladaptive outcomes, such as defensive avoidance (Witte, 1992). Drive theories predominantly suggest an inverted U-shape relationship between fear and message adoption, and generally suggest a moderate amount of fear would produce the most attitude change. However, both models have since been rejected as research has been unable to support the claim that message acceptance occurs when fear is decreased (Witte & Allen, 2000)[seems to contrast with the earlier case study?].

Protection Motivation Theory[edit | edit source]

Illustration of PMT

Protection Motivation Theory (PMT; Rogers 1975, 1983), is the most applied scientific model for the research in fear appeals (Ruiter et al., 2014). PMT is a value-expectancy theory that centres on Leventhal’s (1970) danger control process (i.e., perspectives on danger and threat and how to prevent it), however, it does not discuss fear control processes. In PMT, there are four message components that are proposed to motivate corresponding cognitive mediation processes. The first is the depiction of the probability of a perceived threat occurring which leads to perceived susceptibility. The second is severity, that is the seriousness of the threat that is depicted in the appeal. The third is the description of the effectiveness of the recommended response which results in perceived response efficacy. The last component refers to the belief of an individual’s ability to perform the recommended response which produces perceived self-efficacy. These cognitive mediation processes are said to generate protection motivation, in order to determine danger control actions. Rogers (1975) proposed that when all four components are met at a high level, the maximum protection motivation results in message acceptance. Rogers later (1983),[grammar?] extended the model to distinguish between maladaptive threat appraisal and adaptive coping appraisal processes (Witte, 1992). However, research testing PMT generally found at least one threat variable interacted with another efficacy variable to persuade message acceptance. PMT is generally considered to do well in explaining when and why fear appeals work, but fails to illustrate when and how fear appeals fail (Witte, 2000).

The Parallel Response Model and Extended Parallel Process Model[edit | edit source]

Diagram of constructs withing[spelling?] EPPM

Leventhal’s (1970) parallel response or process model proposes that fear appeals yield two distinct processes. These processes include danger control processes (efforts to control the threat or danger) and fear control processes (efforts to control fear about a danger or threat) (Witte, 2000). While the model itself was criticised for lack of specificity and being untestable, the extended parallel process model (EPPM; Witte 1992) does use Leventhal’s (1970) model as the overall outline to distinguish between two processes, threat/danger control and fear control. Threat is defined by Witte (1992),[grammar?] as an external stimulus variable (e.g., an environmental or message cue),[grammar?] that exists whether or not an individual is aware of it. However, fear is defined as a negative emotion, accompanied by a level of physiological arousal, elicited by a threat perceived to be substantial and personally pertinent (Easterling & Leventhal, 1989). In addition, the EPPM integrates the original explanation of danger control processes from PMT (PMT; Rogers 1975), which lead to message acceptance, and elaborates on the fear control processes which can lead to message rejection. There are three central constructs in fear appeals: fear, threat and efficacy.

The EPPM suggests that the detection of a threat stimulates message processing which consists of two appraisals. First, the individual will examine the potential danger of the threat. If the evaluation of the threat is perceived to be moderate or high, then fear is triggered. Once the fear is elicited, it is followed by a second appraisal, perceived efficacy (self-efficacy, response efficacy). When a fear appeal triggers both perceived threat and perceived efficacy, danger control processes are undertaken. When the response to a threat appears feasible and effective, individuals are motivated to control the danger. By contrast, when perceived threat is high, but perceived efficacy is low, fear control processes begin. When this occurs, fear becomes intensified leading to an inability to effectively deter the threat. Consequently, the individuals become motivated to cope with their fear via maladaptive responses (e.g., denial). However, if perceptions of threat are low, people may lose motivation to continue message processing, as the threat is viewed as irrelevant or trivial. In essence, perceived threat influences the intensity of the reaction to the message, while perceived efficacy impacts the nature of the reaction (Witte, 1992).


The extended parallel process model was influenced by

the parallel response model.
the health belief model.
protection motivation theory.
theory of reasoned action.

Application of Research[edit | edit source]

Graphic images on cigarette packages
Image of fried egg, as used in substance abuse campaign

Fear appeals are commonly used in health communication. This is best demonstrated in the use of health warnings on cigarette packages, upon which textual and graphic warnings are clearly displayed. Health warnings displayed on cigarette packages were introduced in 2002 in Europe, and quickly spread worldwide (Ruiter et al., 2014). Other examples of fear appeal include the Australian Grim Reaper campaign from 1987, which was intended to inform the public on the dangers of HIV/AIDS. As well as the well-known US campaign “this is your brain on drugs” to prevent substance abuse.

Globally, government agencies continue to have faith in fear-based publicity campaigns, despite a lack of evidence supporting their effectiveness. This is particularly the case with social marketing of public health. There are a range of possible strategies to design and execute a public health campaign, however, the majority of road safety advertising campaigns televised in Australian and New Zealand have relied heavily on fear appeal to convey their message (Tay & Watson, 2002). The general consensus across the current literature on fear appeal is that expanding upon efficacy is fundamental to message acceptance. As such, a study conducted in Australia in the early 2000’s[grammar?] sought to explore the effects of fear arousal and efficacy on message acceptance or rejection in the context of road safety (Tay & Watson, 2002). Road crashes are a major cause of mortality and injury among the younger Australian population ("Deaths in Australia, Leading causes of death - Australian Institute of Health and Welfare", 2021)

In the 2000’s[grammar?], in an effort to reduce road trauma, many state and federal governments in Australia and New Zealand invested millions of dollars in road safety advertising campaigns (Tay & Watson, 2002). The study was conducted using 165 participants. The participants were mostly university staff and students, as well as friends of some of the participants. The sample was randomly divided into two separate conditions. Both conditions watched the same high threat message addressing driver fatigue, however, the second condition was also presented with coping strategies (i.e., taking a power nap, before driving, taking a break to drink coffee or swapping drivers). Participants were also administered two questionnaires. The first questionnaire was administered prior to watching the advertisement, and again shortly after. Another questionnaire was administered two weeks later (Tay & Watson, 2002).

The results indicated that presenting the audience with concise coping strategies increased the perceived response efficacy and perceived self-efficacy. Consequently, those who were shown the coping recommendations along with the threat reported higher levels of intent to take positive actions to avoid driving while fatigued. Generally, the intentions to take positive actions drops over time following the high threat message (Tay & Watson, 2002). However, the participants who were shown coping recommendations significantly outperformed the group who did not view the coping strategies. Consistent with the literature, perceived efficacy was found to have a significant positive influence on behavioural intentions and seems to increase adaptive intentions. Nevertheless, there are limitations within the study such as;[grammar?] generalisability and the nature of self-reporting. In future research, the study should be replicated using a larger sample and from a general driving population (Tay & Watson, 2002).

Case study

Sally was meeting up with friends for dinner following her work shift. She had a rough day dealing with an unreasonable supervisor. Sally’s friend Jessica suggested that after the meal they go for a couple of drinks at their local pub. Due to her difficult day, she agreed. Whilst at the pub, watching the footy on a widescreen TV, she she’s[spelling?] a public service announcement in which a horrific crash was depicted. The crash was caused by drunk driving. Since Sally had never seen this particular advertisement before, it left her stunned. The advertisement also depicted scenarios in which the driver could have decided either to take a taxi home, or walk home.[So, what happened next?]

Contemporary Research[edit | edit source]

The use of fear appeals is a divisive issue. Although there are many [what?] practitioners who are adamant that fear appeals persuade audiences, there are just as many who believe they are ineffective and even damaging (Ruiter et al., 2014, Janis & Feshbach, 1953). Nonetheless, in the present research, there was a comprehensive meta-analysis investigation conducted into the largest database of fear appeals[factual?]. This meta-analysis explored the effectiveness of fear appeals for changing attitudes, intentions, and behaviours, and tested predictions made by a large selection of influential fear appeal theories. The meta-analysis concluded that fear appeals are in fact effective and successful at influencing attitudes, intentions and behaviours across virtually all conditions that were analysed. Given the wide range of theories that specify conditions under which fear appeals should be ineffectual (Janis & Feshbach, 1953), it is surprising how many studies produced favourable results towards fear appeals. Through the meta-analysis, the researchers were also able to determine varying factors that can improve their effectiveness. By way of illustration, the fear appeals were more effective when the message depicted a relatively high degree of fear and included an efficacy message. The fear appeals that were more effective were also the ones that stressed susceptibility [explain?] as well as the severity of the threat. Fear appeals were also more persuasive when they recommended one-time only behaviours. Nevertheless, there were limitations within the meta-analysis, namely, there was only a comparison between groups who were exposed to additional, or less fear-inducing content. There was no comparison between those who were unafraid and those who are. Another limitation is the meta-analysis solely focused on experimental studies,[grammar?] further research into whether or not these results can be generalised to naturalistic settings is necessary (Tannenbaum et al., 2015).


What is needed to improve persuasion of fear appeals?

High fear arousal.
Blood and gore.
Useful recommendations.
They are never effective.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Since the inception of fear appeals, a general belief was that higher levels of fear arousal produced greater persuasiveness of communication (Higbee, 1969). This has been challenged by some earlier research. In fact, a number of studies have suggested there is a negative relationship between fear arousal and persuasiveness, and that a lower level of fear arousal is ideal (Janis and Fleshbach, 1953). Indeed, despite over fifty years of research on fear appeal and the use of fear-based publicity campaigns, an unequivocal answer concerning effectiveness had not been confirmed (Tay & Watson, 2002). However, the prevailing consensus based on contemporary literature,[grammar?] has indicated that higher amounts of fear are more effective when utilising fear appeals, even more so than comparison treatments. This was especially the case when combined with heightened severity and susceptibility, in addition to expanding upon efficacy and self-efficacy which is fundamental to message acceptance (Tannenbaum et al., 2015).

See also[edit | edit source]

[Use alphabetical order.]

References[edit | edit source]

Clark, C., Davil, A., Regis, M. & Sascha, K. (2020). Predictors of COVID-19 voluntary compliance behaviors:An international investigation. Global Transitions, 2, 76-82.

Deaths in Australia, Leading causes of death - Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Retrieved 16 October 2021, from

Higbee, K. L. (1969). Fifteen years of fear arousal: Research on threat appeals: 1953-1968. Psychological Bulletin, 72(6), 426–444.

Hovland, C. I., & Weiss, W. (1953). Transmission of information concerning concepts through positive and negative instances. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 45(3), 175–182.

Janis, I. L., & Feshbach, S. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 48(1), 78–92., 24(11), 829–836.

Leventhal, H. (1970). Findings and theory in the study of fear communications. Advances in experimental social psychology, 5, 119-186.

Meczkowski, E. J., Dillard, J. P., & Shen, L. (2016). Threat appeals and persuasion: Seeking and finding the elusive curvilinear effect. Communication Monographs, 83(3), 373–395.

Roberto, A. J., Mongeau, P. A., & Liu, Y. (2018). A (Re)defining moment for fear appeals: a comment on Kok et al. (2018). Health Psychology Review, 12(2), 144–146.

Rosenstock, I. M. (1974). Historical Origins of the Health Belief Model. Health Education Monographs, 2(4), 328–335.

Ruiter, R. A. C., Kessels, L. T. E., Peters, G.-J. Y., & Kok, G. (2014). Sixty years of fear appeal research: Current state of the evidence. International Journal of Psychology, 49(2), 63–70.

Tong, K. K., Chen, J. H., Yu, E. W., & Wu, A. M. S. (2020). Adherence to COVID‐19 Precautionary Measures: Applying the Health Belief Model and Generalised Social Beliefs to a Probability Community Sample. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 12(4), 1205–1223.

Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeals: Implications for Effective Public Health Campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 591–615.

Witte, K. (1992). Putting the fear back into fear appeals: The extended parallel process model. Communication Monographs, 59(4), 329–349.

Tannenbaum, M. B., Hepler, J., Zimmerman, R. S., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K., & Albarracín, D. (2015). Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories. Psychological Bulletin, 141(6), 1178–1204.

Tay, R., & Watson, B. (2002). Changing Drivers’ Intentions and Behaviours Using Fear- Based Driver Fatigue Advertisements. Health Marketing Quarterly, 19(4), 55–68.

External links[edit | edit source]

[Use bullet-points. Provide labels so that the links are more user-friendly.] Why the federal government’s COVID-19 fear appeal to Sydney residents won’t work (Newspaper Article)