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Fear Appeals

An approach used to change our attitudes and behaviors.

How can people’s attitudes and behavior be changed? One emotion that often affects attitudes and behavior is fear. Fear can be such a powerful tool that campaigns have been developed focusing on “fear appeals.” Fear appeals are messages that try to persuade people about the potential harm that may happen to them if they do not accept the messages’ recommendations (Tannenbaum et al., 2015).

Fear appeals have three major components: the message, the audience, and the recommended behavior. There are many messages that convey important information about potential harm; however, if the message is to have any effect, it should address issues that instill critical amounts of fear and be targeted to those who are the most susceptible to the risk. For example,

  • A message addressing the harmfulness of driving while drunk may have no effect on those who do not drive or drink alcohol
  • Breast cancer messages are typically directed toward women who have a larger personal risk of bodily harm than men (although men may be impacted by their concern for female loved ones)

The third component — recommended behavior — is important because it gives instruction on what to do to avert or reduce the risk of harm. Simply frightening people without giving them an effective way to avoid or deal with the situation is not a very influential means for behavioral motivation.

Undoubtedly, most of us have been exposed to fear appeal campaigns regarding health issues, politics, and traffic and driving safety. For example,

  • Public service announcements on the lethal dangers of young people going to college without having received a meningitis vaccination
  • Billboards indicating the harmfulness of sexually transmitted diseases and promoting “safe sex practices”
  • Videos of terrible accidents due to texting while driving

Fear appeals are also used in educational settings. In order to motivate students to perform well academically, teachers and counselors will emphasize the importance of exams, papers, and classroom participation. The message is conveyed clearly that if students want to achieve their goals (e.g., getting a good job; gaining entry into college, or graduate/medical/law school), they cannot risk poor or sometimes even average grades.

There is some difference in opinion as to whether “fear appeals” are productive or counterproductive. For example, if the message is so extreme, instead of being influenced by it, the audience could ignore the information altogether. In essence, the fear depicted in the message is so great that rather than deal with it, people stop listening, viewing, or reading it. In such situations, they might also criticize the nature of the message and then use self-justification for not modifying their attitudes and behavior; especially, if they discuss the fear appeals with others (Goldenbeld, Twisk, & Houwing, 2007).

There is also the possibility that arousing fear could result in a defensive response or “risk denial;” particularly, among those who are most susceptible to the threat (Ruiter, Kessels, Peters, & Kok, 2014). For example, after viewing fear appeal messages on drinking and driving, some people who drink and drive may respond by claiming that their drinking does not affect their driving skills, and thus the message does not apply to them.

Fear alone does not change behavior. We may learn that certain behaviors we engage in are potentially harmful and have now become fearful; yet, we still engage in the harmful behaviors (Tannenbaum et al., 2015). For example, we may learn that taking too much over-the-counter pain medication can cause liver damage; nevertheless, we continue to take more than we should when the pain is great.

Many studies on the effectiveness of fear appeals have been conducted. Generally, the findings reveal that fear appeals do work; however, more specific results were also discovered (Tannenbaum et al, 2015).

  • There is a maximum effective value of fear. Once a moderate amount of fear is conveyed, there is no further benefit in adding more fear.
  • Fear messages that let the audience know they can perform the recommended behavior or that the behavior will have a positive result are more effective than fear appeal messages without mention of recommended actions.
  • Fear appeals that recommend one-time behaviors are more effective than appeals that recommend repeated behaviors.
  • Fear appeals are more effective for women because women tend to be more “prevention-focused” than men.

Clearly, fear appeals do not only provoke fear reactions. There can be feelings of disgust, anger, anxiety, or guilt. These emotions may also have an effect on behavioral changes.

Fear appeals are a form of persuasive communication. Understanding the personalities of the audience (e.g., the typical characteristics and traits of women in comparison to men, or of adolescents versus young or middle-aged people, or of those who are health conscious versus those who are not) will help in designing a campaign that is better directed toward the targeted individuals. Care, however, should be taken not to stigmatize or exhibit bias regarding the audience; doing so could possibly backfire. That is, the message might not only be rejected by the audience, but the behavior that the message intended to change could become further entrenched.

The practice of fear appeals has its warranted critics; especially, if applied unethically. If fear is used to motivate attitudinal and behavioral change, it should be used judiciously. Moreover, it might be best directed toward individuals who are known and for whom the recommendations apply appropriately, rather than an ambiguous population.


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. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 11, 207-220.

Ruiter, R. A., Kessels, L. T, E., Peters, G. Y., & Kok, G. (2014). Sixty years of fear appeal research: Current state of the evidence. International Journal of Psychology, 49, 63–70. DOI: 10.1002/ijop.12042

Tannenbaum, M. B., Hepler, J., Zimmerman, R. S., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K., & Albarracin, D. (2015). Appealing to fear: A Meta-Analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories. Psychological Bulletin, 141, 1178–1204.