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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Scaring people into acting on your message doesn't work

Many of you will have seen charity adverts on television which try to shock you into donating. This can involve including distressing images or clips such as in this RSPCA video below:



Although adverts of this type can trigger an emotional response, they are not necessarily effective at persuading people to donate money. One way to improve this advert would be to reduce the strength of the fear appeal and focus more on demonstrating what people can do to help.

In a classic study by Janis and Feshbach (1953) it was found that the degree of attitude change was found to be significantly lower in a group exposed to a strong fear appeal than in an equivalent group exposed to a mild appeal.
In the study, a group of high school students were placed into four groups of 50 students to watch a presentation on dental hygiene. In the high-fear group, the students watched a film which included graphic photographs e.g. of gum disease and tooth decay. In the moderate-fear group, the group watched a video discussing the same topics but with less anxiety-arousing references. In the low-fear group, the video demonstrated techniques for effective brushing of teeth, without any references to unpleasant topics. A fourth group acted as a control and received no lecture on dental hygiene.
In each video, five recommendations were given on how to clean your teeth, e.g. brush using an up-and-down stroke. Each participant was given a score, ranging from 0-5 which represented the number of these recommendations they conformed to.
After a week, questionnaires were given to each participant to ask how their tooth-brushing behaviour had changed. The results are shown in the table below: 


As you can see, 28% of the high-fear group reported conforming to more of the recommendations. This was not a significant increase. However for the low-fear group, 50% of the students in that group reported better habits.

This suggests that the high-fear video was not effective at changing habits. There are many reasons why this could be, for example the distressing images could have distracted the viewer from the message. In the article, the authors also suggest that in high fear appeals, this can reduce the effectiveness if it evokes a high degree of emotional tension which is not resolved.

In terms of the advert above therefore, they should try to avoid high fear campaigns in the future. One way, according to this research in which to improve the advert is to reduce the graphic images and to focus more of the facts which the RSPCA want you to get out of watching the video, especially in terms of what exactly it is that you should do in order to help the charity.
So even though you may feel upset at seeing pictures of maltreated animals, this won't necessarily help you in acting on the message of the video and won't necessarily be enough for you to pick up the phone and donate.


Janis, I. L. & Feshbach, S. (1953). Effects of Fear-Arousing Communications. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 48, 78-92.

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