A meta-analysis by Witte & Allen (2000) provides evidence that fear appeals can motivate attitude, intention and behavior changes, as long as they are accompanied by messages that make people believe they can succeed in changing their respective behaviours.
Indeed, fear appeals are often used in public health campaigns (as the picture shows) because they can have this effect. The effect is consistent, but rather small, because people really need to believe in the fear appeal messages and that they are able to change.
The behavior change should not exceed the capabilities of the individual because if the behaviour change is too difficult, then the likelihood of behaviour change diminishes, and the individual may show psychological reactance instead of motivation.
Fear appeals may also produce defensive responses in people with low-efficacy perceptions because these people may not think they can cope effectively with the threat (i.e., fear). For example, knowing that smoking kills will only promote behaviour change in those who believe change is an option (due to feelings of self-efficacy).
5 facts about fear appeals
- Fear appeals are most effective when threat severity and susceptibility to the threat are emphasized: In other words, the severity of the threat and references to the target population’s susceptibility to the threat (i.e., their likelihood of experiencing the threat) need to be obvious in the fear appeal message. Vivid language and pictures of the consequences of a health threat may increase perceptions of severity of threat. Personalistic language (e.g., ” you are at increased risk”) may increase perceptions of susceptibility.
- Messages that make a health issue seem serious and likely to happen will motivate more to attitude, intention, and behaviour changes
- Strong fear appeals work only when accompanied by strong efficacy messages: The target population must believe that they are able to perform a recommended response and that these recommended responses work in minimizing the threat. People may experience barriers that inhibit their perceived ability to perform a recommended action so these experiences should be dealt with (e.g., skills, costs, beliefs, emotions) to promote behaviour changes
- Individual differences such as personality traits or demographic characteristics such as gender do not appear to influence processing of fear appeal messages
- In order to make fear appeals work most effectively, people’s attitudes, intentions, and defensiveness should be assessed.