Research reveals how fear can be used to influence attitudes and behaviours, especially among women.
These appeals are effective at changing attitudes, intentions and behaviours. There are very few circumstances under which they are not effective and there are no identifiable circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes, said University of Illinois’ Dolores Albarracin.
Fear appeals are persuasive messages that emphasize the potential danger and harm that will befall individuals if they do not adopt the messages’ recommendations. While these types of messages are commonly used in political, public health and commercial advertising campaigns (e.g., smoking will kill you, Candidate A will destroy the economy), their use is controversial as academics continue to debate their effectiveness.
Researchers found fear appeals to be effective, especially when they contained recommendations for one-time only (versus repeated) behaviours and if the targeted audience included a larger percentage of women. They also confirmed prior findings that fear appeals are effective when they describe how to avoid the threat (e.g., get the vaccine, use a condom).
More important, said Albarracin, there was no evidence in the meta-analysis that fear appeals backfired to produce a worse outcome relative to a control group.
She noted that the studies analysed did not necessarily compare people who were afraid to people who were unafraid, but instead compared groups that were exposed to more or less fear-inducing content. Albarracin also recommended against using only fear-based appeals.
“More elaborate strategies, such as training people on the skills they will need to succeed in changing behaviour, will likely be more effective in most contexts. It is very important not to lose sight of this,” she said.
The study is published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.