Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Protection Motivation Theory: Why Fear Appeals Facilitate Attitude Change

This mouthwash advert is a prime example of a fear appeal. The purpose of such appeals is to induce fear and anxiety associated with a particular outcome and then offer a means of preventing this outcome, thus resulting in the individual’s intention to adopt the preventative measure in order to reduce these undesirable feelings.

Protection Motivation Theory (Rogers, 1975) aims to explain how such fear communications work by proposing three critical components: (a) the perceived severity of an event, (b) the probability of said event’s occurrence and (c) the efficacy of a protective response. These components are said to initiate corresponding cognitive processes which mediate attitude change. This theory is summed up in the figure below.

 This advert satisfies the three components of PMT by postulating:
(a)    A high severity outcome associated with gum disease i.e. losing one’s teeth
(b)   A high probability outcome, as gum disease is the leading cause of tooth loss.
(c)    A high efficacy protective response i.e. use Corsodyl mouthwash which is clinically proven to treat gum disease

PMT theory has been found to be effective in encouraging attitude change in various domains. For example, in one study by Stainback and Rogers (1983), fear appeals were used as a means of preventing underage drinking. In this study, persuasive messages were created by manipulating the descriptions of the severity of consequences of drinking alcohol (severe vs. not severe) and the probability of occurrence (high probability vs. low probability) of these consequences. The efficacy of the coping response was held constant across conditions as the participants (9th graders) were told that abstinence was the best way to avoid the negative consequences associated with teenage drinking. Immediately after receiving this information, the high fear group (severe consequences with high probability) expressed stronger intentions to remain abstinent than the low fear group (no consequences with low probability).

Therefore, it can be seen that an effective way to produce a change in behaviour, or at least in intention, is to convince people of the serious negative consequences which are highly likely to occur if they do not adopt a recommended course of action (i.e. If you do not use this mouthwash, gum disease will almost definitely cause your teeth to fall out).  


Rogers, R. W. (1975). A protection motivation theory of fear appeals and attitude change. Journal of Psychology, 91, 93-114.

Stainback, R.D., & Rogers, R.W. (1983). Identifying effective components of alcohol abuse prevention programs: Effects of fear appeals, message style and source expertise.  International Journal of Addictions, 18, 393-405. 

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