Fear Appeals

Fear Appeals Definition

Fear AppealsFear appeals, or fear-arousing communications, are communications that emphasize negative consequences of specific behaviors to motivate behavior change. Fear-arousing communications usually consist of two parts, namely, a fear appeal that stresses the severity of, and personal vulnerability to, a threat and a recommended protective action capable of reducing or eliminating the threat.

Fear Appeals Context and Importance

Fear appeals are widely used in health promotion. They come in many guises, from the obligatory health warnings on cigarette packs to essays about the deleterious effects of obesity. With an estimated 40% of premature mortality from the 10 leading causes of death in the United States due to modifiable lifestyle factors, the use of fear appeals in health promotion has become an accepted means of improving the health of populations. The basic assumption guiding the use of fear appeals is that the more one succeeds in making individuals concerned about the negative consequences of health-impairing actions, the greater will be the likelihood of behavior change. In line with this principle, several countries are now considering adding gory pictures to the written warnings on cigarette packs.

Theories of Fear Appeals

Over the years, several theories have been proposed to explain how fear appeals work. According to early drive-reduction models, exposure to threatening information arouses fear, which motivates individuals to reduce it. Greater fear will result in more persuasion, but only if the recommended action is perceived effective in avoiding the danger. Because of weak support for this theory, later models abandoned the assumption that the intensity of the fear determines the acceptance of (effective) action recommendations. According to Leventhal’s parallel response model, the emotional response to the risk information is considered largely irrelevant for the actions taken to reduce the risk. Cognitive appraisal of the risk information stimulates two parallel responses, namely, danger control and fear control. Danger control is a problem-solving process, which involves the choice of actions capable of averting the danger. In contrast, fear control entails an individual’s attempt to control the unpleasant affect evoked by fear arousal. Since fear control might often use denial strategies to reduce fear, it can interfere with danger control.

Protection motivation theory is an important attempt to identify the determinants of danger control. This theory differentiates between threat appraisal and coping appraisal. Threat appraisal is an evaluation of personal vulnerability to, and severity of, a threat and of the rewards associated with health-impairing behavior. Coping appraisal involves evaluation of response efficacy, self-efficacy, and of the costs of health-enhancing behavior. These two forms of appraisal are assumed to interact with one another: The motivation to protect oneself will be strongest when the threat is appraised as serious, and coping is appraised as effective. In her extended parallel response model, Witte suggested that when coping is appraised as ineffective, individuals will mainly engage in fear control.

The stage model of processing of fear-arousing communications is the most recent fear-appeal theory. In line with earlier theories, the stage model differentiates between threat appraisal and coping appraisal. If individuals feel vulnerable to a severe health risk, this threatens their belief that they are healthy, arouses defense motivation, and stimulates the motivation to carefully examine the presented information. Defense motivation results in biased processing of information. In appraising the threat, defense-motivated individuals will attempt to minimize it. If this strategy proves unsuccessful, because the threat seems real, individuals will accept that they are at risk. In this case, the processing of the action recommendation will be biased, but in a positive direction. They will now be motivated to find the recommended action effective, because then they can feel safe. Defense motivation will lead to a positive bias in the processing of an action recommendation and consequently heighten the motivation to accept it. Furthermore, while severity of a threat will improve an individual’s evaluation of the protective action, individuals are unlikely to adopt such an action, unless they feel personally vulnerable.

Fear Appeals Evidence

Empirical research on fear appeals has resulted in a body of evidence that high fear messages are generally more effective than low fear messages in changing individuals’ attitudes, intentions, and behavior. More specifically, it has been found that all main components of fear-arousing communications have a positive effect on measures of persuasion: Higher levels of severity of a threat, perceived vulnerability to a threat, response efficacy, and self-efficacy of a recommendation all contribute to changes in attitudes, intentions or behavior. However, whereas most factors affect individuals’ attitudes, research shows that the most important factor in changing individuals’ intentions and actual behavior is perceived vulnerability: Individuals adopt recommended actions mainly when they feel vulnerable to a health risk.

Fear Appeals Implications

The emphasis of health education has frequently been on the severity of negative health consequences and the effectiveness of the recommended action. However, although these factors affect attitudes, they fail to have much impact on behavior. Thus, however severe a health risk and however effective the recommended action, unless one persuades individuals that they are vulnerable, they are unlikely to take protective action. Health education campaigns should stress an individual’s vulnerability to a health risk and not merely vividly depict the severity of the risk. In stressing personal vulnerability to negative consequences of certain behaviors, fear-arousing communications can be an effective way of changing individuals’ health-impairing behaviors.


  1. Boster, F. J., & Mongeau, P. (1984). Fear-arousing persuasive messages. In R. N. Bostrom (Ed.), Communication yearbook (Vol. 8, pp. 330-375). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  2. De Hoog, N., Stroebe, W., & de Wit, J. B. (2005). The impact of fear appeals on processing and acceptance of action recommendations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(1), 24-33.
  3. Rogers, R. W., & Prentice-Dunn, S. (1997). Protection motivation theory. In D. S. Gochman (Ed.), Handbook of health behavior research: Vol. 1. Personal and social determinants (pp. 113-132). New York: Plenum.
  4. Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education and Behavior, 27(5), 591-616.