The fear appeal literature is examined in a comprehensive synthesis using meta-analytical techniques.
The meta-analysis suggests that strong fear appeals produce high levels of perceived severity and susceptibility, and are more persuasive than low or weak fear appeals. The results also indicate that fear appeals motivate adaptive danger control actions such as message acceptance and maladaptive fear control actions such as defensive avoidance or reactance. It appears that strong fear appeals and high-efficacy messages produce the greatest behavior change, whereas strong fear appeals with low-efficacy messages produce the greatest levels of defensive responses. Future directions and practical implications are provided.
Although considerable laboratory research has shown that fear appeals (persuasive messages that arouse fear) motivate behavior change across a variety of behaviors, public health researchers and practitioners continue to contend that fear appeals backfire. Given these conflicting viewpoints, the purpose of this article is to provide a comprehensive review and update of the fear appeal research.
The focus in this work will be on the empirical analysis and synthesis of more than 100 fear appeal articles. This analysis updates Sutton’s and Boster and Mongeau’s (and Mongeau’s limited update) fear appeal meta-analyses and examines several variables previously unexamined in meta-analyses (such as threat and efficacy interactions and fear control outcomes). An update of previous work is needed because there has been a tremendous increase in the number of fear appeal articles in the past dozen years.
Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeals: Implications for Effective Public Health Campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 591–615.