The protection motivation theory (PMT) originally aimed at explaining why people develop protection motivation and what role fear-appeals play in this process. A protection motivation might be an intention to adopt or adhere to a fitness program. Athletes might fear to perform not at their best form if they do not attend training. Exercisers could fear that not regularly training and participating in an exercise program diminishes their fitness, worsens their attractiveness, and increases their risks of diseases such as diabetes. The PMT explains motivation by fear, risk appraisal (severity and vulnerability) and coping appraisal (response efficacy/response costs/self-efficacy).
Fear results from and interrelates with the perceived severity of a health condition: Some individuals might comprehend more increased severity than others. Also, some incidents are typically perceived as more severe (such as cardiac infarction) and others as less serious (a pound too much body weight for an intermediate time). The more severe a health risk, the more likely a motivation develops and a recommended behavior will be shown. However, this is not always the case: Vulnerability also determines whether individuals maintain or change their behavior.
Vulnerability refers to whether a person feels likely to develop a specific condition. This can vary between individuals and different incidents. If a person feels very vulnerable to develop an adverse effect (e.g., worsen performance level, cardiac infarction), she or he might be more likely to obtain such a condition than a person who believes to be less vulnerable. In addition to differences in individual perceptions, some conditions are also more likely than others. For example, the flu is typically very likely to develop during the year (high likelihood and vulnerability), but the intensity and duration of it is rather limited (low severity). In contrary, a cardiac infarction is less likely to occur (low likelihood and vulnerability), but if one develops it, it is life-threatening and persisting (high severity).
Together, severity and vulnerability provide a basis for risk appraisal. Many studies have investigated these effects and found that high-risk appraisals do not guarantee a protective motivation. Additionally, coping appraisal is of importance: Response efficacy, response costs, and self-efficacy determine whether humans change current behavior or maintain recommended behavior.
Self-efficacy refers to the belief in one’s own competence to perform a behavior even in the face of barriers. Athletes require high self-efficacy beliefs in terms of training even if they have many other duties or when feeling tired. Also, exercisers need self-efficacy to overcome comparable barriers and inner temptations.
Another component of coping appraisals is response efficacy: Only if the individual is convinced that a behavior leads to the desired outcome will she or he be more likely to intend to perform the behavior. Athletes need to find an effective training for their performance goals. If a soccer player trains only the muscles, she or he might question how she or he might develop the needed competencies—besides strength—for successfully playing a soccer game. Thus, a mixed training of muscles, flexibility, and coordination would be desired. Alternatively, an exerciser with the aim to mainly prevent pain and to perform muscle training might feel this fits much better his or her needs than a mixed training.
On the other side, perceived response costs come into play: If a person perceives much higher costs than benefits (response efficacy), she or he might not perform the behavior over a longer period of time. Only if positive aspects (response efficacy) outperform negative aspects (response costs) will the individual maintain the motivation to perform the recommended behavior. If costs outweigh the benefits, people will be more likely to discontinue.
The PMT has been successfully applied to different behavioral domains. Figure 1 shows results from the 2000 meta-analysis by Milne and colleagues. The indicators (r+) show that self-efficacy and response-costs appear to be the main predictors of motivation and behavior, while response efficacy is also important. However, threat appraisal appears to be less imperative.
The results of meta-analyses and newer studies demonstrate clearly that fear can hardly change behavior. Also, fear and/or threat appraisal cannot guarantee maintenance of a recommended behavior: Coping appraisal is needed to adopt or maintain a behavior and with that to prevent and overcome injuries and slumps. Coping appraisal is also essential for overcoming fears and mental blocks. Only by means of resources like self-efficacy and sufficient knowledge (i.e., response efficacy) inner or external temptations can be overcome.
Figure 1 Protection Motivation Theory With Aggregated Correlations (r+)
These resources can be improved in interventions. When promoting the performance of a recommended behavior, the adoption of the behavior (or increasing the motivation to change) is typically differentiated from the maintenance of the behavior (the behavior itself). In recent studies, it was found that threat appraisal and response efficacy are imperative for preparing behavior change. Changing behavior and maintaining it over time requires self-efficacy and other volitional variables.
- Lippke, S., & Plotnikoff, R. C. (2009). The protection motivation theory within the stages of the transtheoretical model—Stage-specific interplay of variables and prediction of stage transitions. British Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 211–229.
- Milne, S., Sheeran, P., & Orbell, S. (2000). Prediction and intervention in health-related behavior: A metaanalytic review of protection motivation theory. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30,106–143.
- Rogers, R. W. (1983). Cognitive and physiological processes in fear-appeals and attitude change: A revised theory of protection motivation. In J. Cacioppo & R. Petty (Eds.), Social psychophysiology (pp. 153–176). New York: Guilford Press.
- Zhang, Y., & Cooke, R. (2012). Using a combined motivational and volitional intervention to promote exercise and healthy dietary behaviour among undergraduates. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 95, 215–223.