Fear-Triggering Appeals Work
“These appeals are effective at changing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors…There are very few circumstances under which they are not effective, and there are no identifiable circumstances under which they backfire.”
“Fear appeals were successful at influencing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors across nearly all conditions that were analyzed…Fear appeals consistently work.”
That’s the conclusion of a just-published study looking at a half-century worth of research on the subject. It finds this approach doesn’t have an especially large impact on its recipients, but it almost always produces the desired outcome to some extent.That said, some work better than others.
“We found that fear appeals were more effective when the message depicted relatively high amounts of fear, included an efficacy message, and stressed susceptibility and severity related to the concerns being addressed,” the researchers write.
“We also found that fear appeals were more effective when they recommended one-time-only behaviors, and when audiences included a higher percentage of women.”
Fear-based appeals appear to be effective at influencing attitudes and behaviors, especially among women, according to a comprehensive review of over 50 years of research on the topic…
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).
They found fear appeals to be effective, especially when they contained recommendations for one-time only (versus repeated) behaviors 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).
…there was no evidence in the meta-analysis that fear appeals backfired to produce a worse outcome relative to a control group.
“Fear produces a significant though small amount of change across the board. Presenting a fear appeal more than doubles the probability of change relative to not presenting anything or presenting a low-fear appeal…However, fear appeals should not be seen as a panacea because the effect is still small. Still, there is no data indicating that audiences will be worse off from receiving fear appeals in any condition.”
Fear appeals are persuasive messages that attempt to arouse fear by emphasizing the potential danger and harm that will befall individuals if they do not adopt the messages’ recommendations
An efficacy message is a statement that assures message recipients that they are capable of performing the fear appeal’s recommended actions (self-efficacy) and/or that performing the recommended actions will result in desirable consequences (response-efficacy)…when message recipients are presented with a threat (i.e., depicted fear), resulting feelings of vulnerability lead them to evaluate whether or not adopting the message’s recommendations will protect them from the threat-related negative consequences. If recipients decide that adopting the recommended action(s) will protect them, the fear appeal should be more effective. As efficacy statements provide this assurance, fear appeal messages that include statements about self- or response-efficacy should be more effective than fear appeal messages that include neither…Fear appeals are loss-framed messages because they emphasize negative consequences, and loss-framed information makes people more willing than usual to take risks… depicted fear may have a maximum effective value, beyond which there is no impact of depicting additional fear. This finding may have implications for practitioners using fear appeals; that is, once a message depicts moderate fear, there is no value in depicting additional fear, but depicting additional fear will not lead to negative effects.
fear appeals are effective with or without efficacy statements, but the inclusion of efficacy statements is associated with increased effectiveness…we found that fear appeals were more effective when the message depicted relatively high amounts of fear, included an efficacy message, and stressed susceptibility and severity related to the concerns being addressed (i.e., factors concerning the message). We also found that fear appeals were more effective when they recommended one-time only behaviors (i.e., a factor concerning the recommended behavior) and when audiences included a higher percentage of women (i.e., a factor concerning the audience).