PUBLIC HEALTH
November 3, 2015

Scared To Health

Public health campaigns that use fear to spark change are controversial. But they may actually work.

Public health campaigns that use fear to get us to change our ways are controversial for sure. They’ve gotten mixed reviews over the years, as some believe that showing us what may happen if we don’t lose weight or quit smoking is an effective way of getting people to change unhealthy behaviors.

Others have been skeptical, since some research has suggested that instilling fear does not lead to long-term change. But a new study suggests that fear campaigns do help in some ways; and that at the very least, they’re unlikely to make things worse.

Appealing to people's fears also worked when the goal was about avoiding a negative outcome (like getting the flu or contracting an STD) with a relatively simple action, like getting a vaccine or using a condom.

“These appeals are effective at changing attitudes, intentions and behaviors,” study author Dolores Albarracin said in a news release. “There are very few circumstances under which [fear campaigns] are not effective and there are no identifiable circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes.”

She and her team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked back at the findings of 127 previous studies involving more than 27,000 people. The studies were conducted between 1962 and 2014, and generally compared groups of people who were exposed to more or less “fear-inducing” content.

Overall, fear-based campaigns did have an effect — especially in women. They were also more effective short-term, when the aim of the campaign was to get people to do a one-time thing, like getting a vaccine. They were less effective for long-term endeavors like losing weight.

Appealing to people's fears also worked when the goal was about avoiding a negative outcome (like getting the flu or contracting an STD) with a relatively simple action, like getting a vaccine or using a condom.

“Fear produces a significant though small amount of change across the board,” said Albarracin. “Presenting a fear appeal more than doubles the probability of change relative to not presenting anything or presenting a low-fear appeal.”

That said, fear may not always be the best way. One earlier poll of overweight people showed that when it comes to long-term weight loss, fear may not be helpful, since it can stigmatize the overweight and over-simplify the hurdles they face when trying to lose weight. And if that’s happening, then the campaigns may be alienating the people they’re trying to help.

Getting people to change their ways on any level is not an easy task, so the medical and public health communities have their work cut out for them. But looking to psychological research for help in figuring out what works and what doesn’t — and listening to what people say would be effective — is definitely a good first step.

The study is published in Psychological Bulletin.

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