Does Fear Motivate?

alt: 2 doodles point and laugh at another doodle, who’s making a funny face. A 4th doodle wags their finger and says, “You better quit or your face will stick like that!”

Remember when you were young and people would tell you, “Don’t roll your eyes or they’ll get stuck up there!” That, dear readers, is a classic example of a fear appeal.

A fear appeal is a persuasive message that emphasizes the potential risk or danger of an action (or a non-action) in order to inspire behavior change. Aside from classic “parent-isms,” these types of appeals are commonly used in political campaigns, marketing efforts, and — you guessed it — public health!

The overall impact of fear appeals is up for debate — and it can be really tricky to use fear appeals effectively in a public health campaign. After all, we’ve definitely seen a few cases of fear-based messaging gone wrong.

Take the abstinence-only sex education programs that used to be popular in the United States. These programs were created to keep teens from having sex and to lower teen pregnancy rates. They used fear-based tactics to try to scare teens out of having sex (think: alarming photos of STDs). In the end, abstinence-only programs weren’t effective at delaying youth sexual activity or reducing teen pregnancy rates.

But not all fear-based messaging has been such a flop. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tobacco education program Tips From Former Smokers® has proven to be extremely impactful. It’s definitely one of the more effective fear-based messaging campaigns we’ve seen in a while.

Studies like this one help explain why some fear-based campaigns are more effective than others. Fear appeals have more success when the messages:

  • Recommend a one-time behavior, like quitting smoking
  • Emphasize risk severity — for example, “Smoking can cause serious, immediate damage to your body and it shortens your life.”
  • Include the benefits of taking action, like: “Quitting now helps you prevent serious health problems.”

At the end of the day, dear readers, the fear factor conversation is complex. So if you’re thinking of using a fear appeal, make sure it’s the right fit for your messaging — and execute it effectively.

P.S. We’re interested in your thoughts on this issue! Please let us know what you think about fear-based messaging in the comments or on Twitter.

The bottom line: Fear can help motivate behavior change when used effectively — but it’s not always the way to go.

Tweet about it: Should fear be a factor in #PublicHealth messaging? @CommunicateHlth weighs in: https://bit.ly/2qregoI #HealthLit