Ignoring theory and misinterpreting evidence: the false belief in fear appeals

Gerjo Kok, Gjalt-Jorn Y Peters, Loes T.E. Kessels, Gill A. ten Hoor, Robert A.C. Ruiter

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

Use of fear appeals assumes that when people are emotionally confronted with the negative effects of their behaviour they will change that behaviour. That reasoning is simple and intuitive, but only true under specific, rare circumstances. Risk perception theories predict that if people will experience a threat, they want to counter that threat. However, how they do so is determined by their coping efficacy level: if efficacy is high, they may change their behaviour in the suggested direction; if efficacy is low, they react defensively. Research on fear appeals should be methodologically sound, comparing a threatening to a non-threatening intervention under high and low efficacy levels, random assignment and measuring behaviour as outcome. We critically review extant empirical evidence and conclude that it does not support positive effects of fear appeals. Nonetheless, their use persists and is even promoted by health psychology researchers, causing scientific insights to be ignored or misinterpreted.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-125
Number of pages15
JournalHealth Psychology Review
Volume12
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2018

    Fingerprint

Keywords

  • 2-YEAR FOLLOW-UP
  • AROUSING COMMUNICATIONS
  • BEHAVIOR-CHANGE
  • CIGARETTE WARNING LABELS
  • Fear appeals
  • HEALTH MESSAGES
  • NEUROSCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE
  • PROTECTION MOTIVATION THEORY
  • SELF-AFFIRMATION
  • SHOWING LEADS
  • SMOKING-CESSATION PROGRAMS
  • extended parallel process model
  • graphic health warnings
  • review
  • threatening communication

Cite this