Behaviour Change

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The use of fear appeals in public health campaigns

This anti-smoking media campaign produced by the NHS warns about the effects of secondhand smoke and the devastating effects that it can have on children. A persuasive technique that this advert uses is fear appeal.

A fear appeal is a persuasive message that aims to arouse fear in the target audience, creating an aversive state and then suggesting a proactive form of action to take to escape this state. An association is made between an undesirable practice with negative consequences, or a desirable practice with the avoidance of negative consequences. In this case, the NHS creates fear by linking an undesired action (smoking) with extremely negative consequences (harming their child’s health). The fear appeal here relies on the threat to the well-being of the smoker's child, which then motivates the smoker towards a specific action (giving up smoking).

Witte and Allen (2000) conducted a meta-analysis of fear appeal studies. The aim of the meta-analysis was to examine how people react (perceptually and persuasively) to fear appeal messages. Firstly, they conducted a literature search of all the relevant fear appeal articles, using the following key words: fear appeal, threat appeal, scare tactic, shock tactic, risk message, risk perception, risk communication, negative message, protection motivation, fear, and threat. Studies that used traditional fear appeal methods and measures, and manipulated the level of either fear or threat in a message were selected for analysis. 98 studies in total met this criteria.

Studies were then classified into different categories, depending on whether they assessed perceived fear, perceived severity, perceived susceptibility, perceived response efficacy, and perceived self-efficacy. Effect sizes were extracted from each study by two independent coders for the effect of fear appeals on perceived fear, perceived severity, perceived susceptibility, perceived response efficacy, and perceived self-efficacy and the effect of fear appeals on attitudes, intentions, and behaviours. Effect sizes for interaction effects were also extracted.

They found that the stronger the fear appeal, the higher the fear aroused and the greater the severity and susceptibility to the threat perceived. Furthermore, the stronger the efficacy message, the stronger the perceptions of response efficacy and self-efficacy (See Table 1).

Table 1. Effects of Fear Appeal Message Features on Perceptions

Their results also indicated that the stronger the fear appeal, the greater the attitude, intention, and behaviour changes, and that the stronger the response efficacy and self-efficacy in a message, the stronger the attitudes, intentions, and behaviours toward the recommended response (See Table 2). 

Table 2. Effects of Message Feature on Attitudes, Intentions and Behaviours

Witte and Allen (2000) conclude that fear appeals are most effective when they contain both high levels of threat and high levels of efficacy; that is, a meaningful threat and specific directed actions that an individual can take to reduce the threat or problem.

This is demonstrated clearly in this NHS advert, with the meaningful threat of harm to the child and specific recommendations for overcoming the fear (Text BREATHE to 63818 for a free Smokefree Kit), which will be effective in encouraging the target audience to take the first step to giving up smoking. Thus, the fear appeal creates an aversive state, which the individual will want to escape and therefore is more likely to comply with the persuasive message. 


Witte, K. and Allen, M. (2000). A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeals: Implications for Effective Public Health Campaigns. Health Education and Behavior, 27(5), 591-615.

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