Fact sheet

Fear appeals and confronting information campaigns


Fear appeals or confronting information campaigns confront people in an often hard and sometimes even shocking way with the consequences of risky behaviour. This can have a positive impact on the attitudes and behavioural intentions of the target group, but only if key conditions are met. Those conditions are that the information does not only evoke fear, but also informs the target group individuals of their personal risk and provides them with feasible and effective behavioural alternatives. However, it is uncertain whether achieving a behavioural effect always requires the emotion of fear.

Confronting information campaigns may also have negative effects: the target group can deny, downplay or ridicule the information message, or it can elicit stronger intentions to engage in the risk behaviour.

There are also types of information campaigns – as opposed to confronting campaigns – that emphasize positive feelings and positive consequences of behaviour. Especially in men and young people, this is often found to have better results than the use of fear appeals.


How do people react to confrontation?

If we are faced with a threat or fear, we want to reduce that threat or that fear. This puts into operation two contradictory mechanisms, one of which prevails: a positive mechanism – we deal with the threat or the problem by following up recommendations – or a negative mechanism – we ignore the problem and the recommended behaviour. Information campaigns using threatening information can also evoke emotions other than fear, for instance anger, sadness, regret, or shame. Recently there have been doubts as to whether the specific emotion of fear is in fact necessary to cause a change in behaviour. [1] [2]

There are different ways in which the problem presented by the information message can be ignored:

  • denial (‘It isn’t true’)
  • ridicule (‘Simply ridiculous!’)
  • neutralization (‘It won’t happen to me’)
  • minimization (‘All heavily exaggerated!’)
How effective is confronting information?

If the campaign message is not ignored, its effectiveness is determined by the behavioural recommendations. The risk behaviour is most strongly reduced if the evoked emotions – both negative and positive – are combined with feasible and effective behavioural recommendations. This has been demonstrated by, among others, information campaigns focused on alcohol use in the traffic, smoking, and safe sex [3].

A behavioural recommendation is feasible if the target group believes that it is actually applicable. (“I can resist the temptation to drive fast on that stretch of road."). We speak of an effective behavioural recommendation if the target group believes that the new behaviour is feasible and really protects against danger (“I can really reduce my risk of a crash if I drive more slowly.”) [2] [4].

The attitude of the target group towards their own risk behaviour also determines the effectiveness of a (confronting) information campaign. The effect is greatest if people think that their behaviour increases their risk. But if they do not consider themselves vulnerable, the risk behaviour will not change, despite the information about the effects of the risk behaviour and despite behavioural recommendations [5] [6]. The figure below reflects what determines the effectiveness of an information campaign if the message is not ignored.

Especially among young people, fear appeals are not more effective than information campaigns that combine positive emotions and images with information. A comparison between both types of information shows that the campaign message is understood equally well in both cases [5] [7].

Nor do fear appeals become more effective as the evoked emotion (fear) is more violent. The effectiveness of the campaign is determined by the feasibility and effectiveness of the behavioural recommendation.

Campaigns that do evoke fear but at the same time contain behavioural recommendations that are insufficiently  feasible or effective, lead to adverse effects such as rejection of and resistance to the message [2].

How effective is confronting information for traffic safe behaviour?

Evaluation studies of road safety fear appeals find both positive and negative effects. Generally these effects only relate to changes in behaviour and behavioural intentions. It is difficult to determine whether fear appeals indeed lead to fewer traffic crashes.

+ Research in Australia and New Zealand has shown that the use of fear appeals in the media may have a positive effect: a reduction of unsafe traffic behaviour. The Australian research reports 5 to 7% fewer casualties as a result of the fear appeals in the media [8] [9].

0 Other road safety studies reported no effect or even a negative effect as a result of fear appeals. A meta-analysis of 13 studies, for example, found no effect.at all [1].

- However, an adverse, negative effect of fear appeals  is also possible. Several examples can be found to illustrate this:

  1. American students were found to be more positive about driving under the influence of alcohol [10] after a fear appeal and in an experiment in a driving simulator young men who had seen a road safety fear appeal were found to drive faster than the group that had seen a neutral film [11].This adverse effect was only found in young men who had indicated on a questionnaire that driving was important for their self-esteem.
  2. Some more recent studies also found adverse effects of fear appeals, for example about speed behaviour [12], about binge drinking [13] and about distraction in traffic [14].
  3. A Dutch study also found that a television fear appeal showing confronting images of a road crash had an adverse effects [15]. After having seen the fear appeal the male participants considered speeding less  hazardous, were less inclined to adhere to the speed limit, and played down the message (“speeding is dangerous”) and the behavioural recommendation (“do not speed, keep to the limit”).
  4. Several Belgian studies indicate that fear appeals do indeed have a short-lived effect on attitudes and opinions, but that the target group quickly gets used to the element of fear. This would explain the effects fading out sooner than those of information using positive emotions [16].
Checklist fear appeals

When are confronting information campaigns useful and which points must be considered if the choice is made to use a confronting information campaign?

  • Only use fear appeals if a thorough pre-study shows that the resulting effects are in the desired direction (that is, the direction that facilitates the choice for safe behaviour). Brennan & Binney [17] for example, found that fear appeals can evoke anger or evasion of the message, especially when the information appeals to empathy and has a certain level of horror or shock. Carry out a pre-study with focus groups (group interviews following the showing of informative examples). This provides valuable insights about the clarity and attractiveness of the information. Keep in mind, however, that people are not always capable of assessing how information influences themselves and others. When people say that a film has made a great impression and say that, according to them, it will work well on others, then this is not necessarily correct. Nor does a positive opinion on a film automatically mean that test-viewers are also inclined to indeed change their own behaviour. 
  • Determine in advance whether the feasible and effective behavioural recommendations have been worked out optimally and whether the information increases the perception of individual vulnerability, in case the sense of vulnerability is low [18]. It is not necessary to use a high level of fear. It is much more important that individuals feel personally vulnerable and that they think that can easily use a behavioural solution.
  • Test the effects of fear appeals in an experimental setting with a control group. It is advisable to compare fear appeals with milder forms of information and to test for both negative and positive effects. Carefully consider the primary target group (for example, young men) and also look at the difference in effect between different campaign groups, for example the difference in response between men and women.
  • Use a clear slogan with a behavioural recommendation (what the target group must do). Not: "If you drink then drive, you are a bloody idiot". But: "100% BOB (sober), 0% alcohol."

Publications and sources

1. Carey, R.N., McDermott, D.T., & Sarma, K.M. (2013). The impact of threat appeals on fear arousal and driver behavior: A meta-analysis of experimental research 1990-2011. PLoS ONE, vol. 8, nr. 5, e62821.

2. Peters, G-J.Y., Ruiter, R.A.C. & Kok, G. (2012). Threatening communication: a critical re-analysis and a revised meta-analytic test of fear appeal theory. In: Health Psychology Review, vol. 7, supplement 1, S8 - S31.

3. Witte, K. & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. In: Health Education & Behaviour, vol. 27, nr. 5, p. 608-632.

4. Ruiter, R.A.C., Abraham, C. & Kok, G. (2001). Scary warnings and rational precautions: a review of the psychology of fear appeals. In: Psychology & Health, vol. 16, nr. 6, p. 613-630.

5. Hoog, N. de, Stroebe, W. & Wit, J.B.F. de (2005). The impact of fear appeals on processing and acceptance of action recommendations. In: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 31, nr. 1, p. 24-33.

6. Hoog, N. de, Stroebe, W. & Wit, J.B.F. de (2008). The processing of fear-arousing communications: How biased processing leads to persuasion. In: Social Influence, vol. 3, nr. 2, p. 84-113.

7. Knobbout, J. & Wel, F. van (1996). Jongeren en angstaanjagende voorlichting. In: Tijdschrift voor Communicatiewetenschap, vol. 24, nr. 3, p. 246-258.

8. Cameron, M., Newstead, S., Diamantopoulou, K. & Oxley, P. (2003). The interaction between speed camera enforcement and speed-related mass media publicity in Victoria. Report No. 201. Monash University Accident Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria.

9. Tay, R. (2002). Exploring the effects of a road safety advertising campaign on the perceptions and intentions of the target and nontarget audiences to drink and drive. In: Traffic Injury Prevention, vol. 3, nr. 3, p. 195-200.

10. Kohn, P.M., Goodstadt, M.G., Cook, G.M., Sheppard, M. & Chan, G. (1982). Ineffectiveness of threat appeals about drinking and driving. In: Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 14, nr. 6, p. 457-464.

11. Taubman Ben-Ari, O., Florian, V. & Mikulincer, M. (2000). Does a threat appeal moderate reckless driving? A terror management theory perspective. In: Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 32, nr. 1, p. 1-10.

12. Jessop, D.C., Albery, I.P., Rutter, J. & Garrod, H. (2008). Understanding the impact of mortality-related health risk information: A terror management theory perspective. In: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 34, nr. 7, p. 951-964.

13. Jessop, D.C. & Wade,J. (2008). Fear appeals and binge drinking: A terror management theory perspective. In: British Journal of Health Psychology, vol. 13, nr. 4, p. 773–788.

14. Lennon, R., Rentfro, R. & O’Leary, B. (2010). Social marketing and distracted driving behaviours among young adults: The effectiveness of fear appeals. In: Academy of Marketing Studies Journal, vol. 14, nr. 2, p. 95-113.

15. Goldenbeld, C., Twisk, D. & Houwing, S. (2008). Effects of persuasive communication and group discussions on acceptability of anti-speeding policies for male and female drivers. In: Transportation Research Part F; Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, vol. 11, nr. 3, p. 207-220.

16. Prigogine, J. (2004). Vergelijking van 24 verkeersveiligheidscampagnes. In: Via Secura, vol. 62, p. 8‑10.

17. Brennan, L. & Binney, W. (2010). Fear, guilt, and shame appeals in social marketing. In: Journal of Business Research, vol. 63, nr. 2, p. 140-146.

18. Lewis, I.M., Watson, B & Tay, R. (2007). Examining the effectiveness of physical threats in road safety advertising: The role of the third-person effect, gender, and age. In: Transportation Research Part F; Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, vol. 10, nr. 1, p. 48-60.

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04 Dec 2014