The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


To Scare or Not to Scare?

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Friday, Jun 17, 2011

A recent Irish PSA has stirred up some controversy on whether scare tactics or fear appeals are appropriate and effective ways to ignite behavior change. After viewing the first video below, Stop the Spread, take a look at the second video, Take the Lead.


Which ad campaign motivates you to change? They take two clearly different approaches!



The Fear Appeal Theory has been studied for over 60 years and has been used since the beginning of time by everyone from doctors and parents to police officers and politicians. I'm sure you can think of a time when you've tried to scare a friend or family member into making a change. "Eat your carrots, Johnny, or you will go blind!"

Three central characteristics have been identified as part of a "fear appeal" - fear (negative emotions), perceived threat (I am at risk and this could really harm me), and perceived efficacy (I can take the recommended action and the recommended action will work). Research shows that messages that produce strong fear and high efficacy produce the greatest change in attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. On the other hand, messages that produce strong fear and low efficacy can have no effect, or even a negative effect, on behavior (i.e., avoidance, reactance, and denial). In other words, fear can be a great motivator as long as the recipients of the message believe they are able to protect themselves. And unfortunately, many times the fear component is the only component that is used.

Think about the Stop the Spread ad campaign again. Does it contain fear? Does it make you feel that you are really at risk? Do you feel confident that you know what to do to avoid the risk? While the ad instructs viewers to measure their waist and go to the website, the "next steps" for a smaller waistline don't seem so clear. 

Now think about the Take the Lead ad campaign. It is positive and empowering. But after viewing it do you feel a strong call to action?

Share your thoughts on these and other persuasive messages on our Facebook page. What types of messages do you think are most effective in motivating change?

Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 591-615.