Do Scare Tactics Work? A Meta-Analytic Test of Fear Appeal Theories

Melanie B. Tannenbaum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presents her research “Do Scare Tactics Work? A Meta-Analytic Test of Fear Appeal Theories,” at the 25th APS Annual Convention in Washington, DC.

Fear appeals evoke a polarizing reaction; proponents are confident in its efficacy, whereas opponents assert that ‘scare tactics’ often backfire. Several recent meta-analyses have found a positive effect of fear on intentions and behavior, particularly in combination with efficacy messages, while others have found null or even negative effects. Yet prior meta-analyses on the topic have been limited in scope, either due to few included papers or a limited range of examined empirical theories. In the meta-analysis discussed in this video, we rigorously tested a comprehensive set of relevant theories and moderators, addressing research questions that have thus far been unexamined in the literature.

An exhaustive search yielded 245 potential articles, which were then screened for inclusion. Papers included in this meta-analysis had to include a fear treatment group, a no/low/moderate fear control group, a standardized intervention, and adequate statistics to calculate effect sizes. The final meta-analysis included 132 papers (11 percent unpublished), which yielded 278 independent samples (Total N = 29,966). The studies included in this analysis cover 13 distinct behavioral domains, including oral health/dental hygiene (e.g., encouraging proper tooth brushing/flossing), HIV/AIDS prevention (e.g., encouraging condom use), smoking cessation/prevention, and drug/alcohol abuse prevention.

We found a positive, linear effect of fear on overall intentions/behavior and a positive effect of including an efficacy message. Fear appeals are also more effective for one-time-only behaviors (e.g., screenings) vs. repeated behaviors (e.g., dieting), and for detection behaviors (e.g., screenings) vs. prevention/promotion behaviors (e.g., vaccines), as predicted by Rothman and Salovey’s theory of gain- and loss-framed messages. Finally, as predicted based on Regulatory Focus Theory, fear was more effective in prevention-focused populations. Fear was significantly more effective in East Asian (vs. Western) countries, in all-female (vs. all-male) samples, and in samples with higher proportions of Asian or female participants.

Melanie Tannenbaum
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Nice research. What immediately occured to me (and when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail) was that this methodology should be applied to management styles. Do managers who use fear get better performance from employees?
If this research can be generalized (and it’s a stretch), it will work once or twice.

Hi Melanie,
Intriguing commendable study.
1.) Would it be possible for you to send me a copy of your full report as an attachment (maybe a PDF) to an email message?
2.) Do you have references on the efficacy of scare tactics on actual smoking cessation? (quitters that actually totally and continuously abstain for at least 365 days) (not CDC estimates of probable success in quitting)
Thank you,
Tom Kwasnik

I am working on my Bachelor of Psychology and am writing a term paper on fear as a motivator. I would love to get your full study/report in a PDF format emailed if possible.

Thanks so much!

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