Protection Motivation Theory

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.

protection-motivation-theory-sports-psychologyFigure 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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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