Why fear-based campaigns don’t work for environmental issues.

I’m going to post this rather long blog entry in 3 sections. I’ll start with the generic description and history of fear-based campaigns, then go on to detail some of the ways they backfire, then describe some environmental campaigns (successful and unsuccessful, with reasons).


Evaluating Fear-Based Campaigns

A fear appeal is a persuasive communication attempting to arouse fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and self-protective action”.[1]

The underlying principle of fear-based campaigns was the assumption that fear is a drive state (or motivational process), and that if this state was triggered by fear appeals or campaigns, then this would motivate a person to reduce their fear by changing their behaviour. This idea was first postulated in the early 1950s, by the noted psychological researcher, Carl Hovland, who developed the Drive Reduction Model of persuasion and attitude change[2]. In the 60 years since then, fear-based campaigns are still widely used in attempts to change behaviour, such as health behaviour (i.e. smoking or unsafe sex), traffic behaviour (i.e. dangerous driving), and environmental behaviour (i.e. littering or wasting water).

Fear appeals do two basic things to try and change undesirable behaviour. First, they attempt to provide information that will initiate or arouse fear of something, which may or may not be already considered a threat to a specific person or group of persons. For example, in the early days of HIV/AIDS, fear campaigns presented HIV as a threat, to which people having unprotected sex were vulnerable, and which had severely negative consequences, i.e. debilitating illness, infecting loved ones, and eventual death. Second, they present information to motivate people to engage in simple behaviours to negate or ameliorate the threat. For example, using condoms during intercourse can prevent the transmission of HIV. Some types of fear appeals are quite confronting, and rely on what is known as “shock tactics” which are highly emotive techniques, such as showing pictures of motor vehicle accidents and victims, diseased organs on cigarette packets, or people dying of starvation. Moreover, sometimes fear-based campaigns are used by both sides of an argument; by groups have diametrically opposing opinions of an issue. For example, environmental groups may release images and stories showing the potential for environmental disasters arising from anthropogenic climate change; but lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry may release images and stories showing economic disasters arising from “premature” investment in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Fear based campaigns rely on three major factors: fear, perceived threat and perceived efficacy[3]. First, fear is an unpleasant emotional state that is triggered by an emotional stimulus, which may be an actual or perceived threat (is that a leopard in the bushes or just the wind?), learned behaviour (if your mother is afraid of lightning, you might learn this fear from her) or instinct (natural fear of snakes). Fear is triggered by the release of chemicals in the brain which then lead to physiological arousal and symptoms such as increases in breathing and heart-rate, muscle tension, stomach distress and so on. The fear response is almost completely automatic[4], and is commonly known as the “fight or flight mechanism”. It is a deep and atavistic instinct, which every creature has, and is intended to help you survive danger by either defending yourself (fight) or running away (flight).

Second, fear campaigns rely on perceived threats, and these have two dimensions, susceptibility and severity of the threat. Unlike fear which is an entirely emotional and largely unconscious state, whether you evaluate something as a threat (or not) is a cognitive and intellectual process. Nonetheless, they are related; if you think something is a severe threat, you will experience greater levels of fear. For example, if someone has a phobia about snakes, they will evaluate any snake, no matter how harmless, as a threat, and experience extreme fear. When faced with a snake in their home (susceptibility to the threat) and degree of existing phobia (severity of the threat), someone with a phobia about snakes will likely behave in an extreme manner which is unrelated to the actual threat posed by the snake.

Finally, perceived efficacy (also known as perceived behavioural control in some behavioural frameworks) also has two dimensions; perceived self-efficacy and perceived response efficacy. Perceived self-efficacy relates to whether or not a person believes they have the ability to undertake an action. For example, if you believe that giving up smoking will be extremely difficult for you to do; you are less likely to respond to anti-smoking campaigns. Perceived response efficacy means the belief whether your response will actually alleviate the threat. For example, if you don’t believe that giving up smoking will improve your health, or that it causes chronic illness, you are unlikely to try and give up.

The outcome of fear appeals.

Despite their almost ubiquitous use throughout society, there is relatively poor empirical evidence that fear-based campaigns actually change behaviour in the direction intended by the advertisers or policy makers who devise and implement them. Fear-based appeals can trigger two diametrically opposite responses in people exposed to them; they can lead to the desired behaviour change, or they can backfire, with sometimes the opposite result. So why do some people choose to change their behaviour and others not? What types of fear-based appeals are more successful?

Firstly, when exposed to a fear-based appeal, for example, a shocking anti-smoking campaign, some people accept the message, and decide to change their behaviour. Fear appeals work best to change behaviour when the fear appeal is stronger, it results in greater levels of fear, and the threat is perceived as severe, and directly relevant to an individual. Moreover, easier the action is to carry out (the stronger the efficacy message), the more likely it is that people will perceive themselves as being able to change their behaviour. Let’s explain this further with an example, related to smoking. Anne, who has smoked for 30 years, is exposed to a shock campaign showing pictures of people dying of lung cancer. Anne already has some degree of health anxiety, and has had a long-term nagging cough. She also saw her father die of lung cancer. The message in the fear-appeal is strong, it is directly relevant to Anne, and she becomes fearful of dying of lung cancer. At the same time, the campaign (which is government funded) offers simple techniques for people to give up smoking, including free online support and nicotine patches. Anne decides to phone the toll-free number, and resolves to stop smoking.

On the other hand, fear appeals may have completely the opposite effect. When exposed to a fear appeal, many may reject the message either partly or completely. This is because fear is generally an unpleasant emotion, so people employ psychological defenses against it: which can include denial, defusing (neutralizing), diminishing (minimizing), defense, derision, depression and even disobedience. These reactions are more common when people are not particularly motivated to change their behaviour. For example, in one American road safety campaign against drink-driving, young people drove faster after seeing a frightening film about road safety! Likewise, in the Netherlands, a television advertisement showing a serious crash had the opposite effect on young men, who after seeing the advertisement, had a diminished attitude to the dangers of driving too fast, and disobeyed the speed limit to a greater extent.

Using the previous example, Angela watches the same anti-smoking advertisement. Unlike Anne, she has only smoked for 3 years, since she left school. She feels perfectly healthy, and has never known anyone die of lung cancer. All her friends also smoke, and they think that smoking is something rebellious and cool, snubbing their noses at authority, so as to speak. She has no desire to give up smoking, and she has no time for things like online support groups. Thus Angela is not likely to take heed of the fear-appeal, as it does not frighten her, she does not see smoking as posing a threat to her, at least in the short term, and she has no motivation to spend any time in activities related to quitting smoking. Instead, when the ad comes on TV, it annoys Angela and her friends, and they either change the channel or make fun of it (derision).

In conclusion, it is quite complicated to devise effective fear-based campaigns that do not backfire. However, some common factors in effective campaigns include the efficacy of the intended behaviour, the extent to which a person thinks they are vulnerable to the risk, and involvement with the message. Strong fear based campaigns (i.e. high shock factor) can also be effective if they recommend feasible and practical behaviour in response. Conversely, high impact campaigns which invoke fear, but which do not contain feasible or effective behaviour recommendations can have the strongest negative or oppositional responses.


References and Footnotes

[1] Ruiter, Robert AC, Charles Abraham, and Gerjo Kok. “Scary warnings and rational precautions: A review of the psychology of fear appeals.” Psychology and Health 16, no. 6 (2001): 613-630.

[2] With Irving Janis, he was also known for his development of the idea of groupthink.

[3] Witte, Kim, and Mike Allen. “A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns.” Health Education & Behavior 27, no. 5 (2000): 591-615.

[4] Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be very effective in training yourself not to be afraid of certain things, such as in phobias


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