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Fear appeals have been predominantly studied in the context of education,[1] marketing,[2] and health awareness campaigns,[3] with the intent to alter intentions and motivate individuals to act on a message. Much of the research has been directed at establishing the relevant variables in both the target of the message, as well as the message itself. Over the years, several models of the influence of fear appeals on persuasion, have been proposed. These include Drive Theory, Protection Motivation Theory,[4] Subjective Expected Utility Theory, the Parallel Process Model, and the Extended Parallel Process Model.


A "Fear Appeal" is a message designed to elicit fear in an attempt to persuade an individual to pursue some predefined course of action.


Researchers have examined several variables that have been thought, at one time or another, to influence the persuasive effect of fear appeals. These are the perceived threat, the strength of the fear elicited, perceived efficacy,individual characteristics, and defense mechanisms. The results of the research have frequently been conflicting and teasing apart the influences of each has required the incorporation of elements of several of the models available. Nevertheless, many key insights have been achieved through careful integration of the theories and have shed light on the process of fear elicited persuasion.

Perceived ThreatEdit

Perceived threat is thought to be an important moderator in the process of fear evoked persuasion.[5] It consists of both the perceived severity of the threat and the perceived susceptibility to it.

Perceived susceptibility, sometimes referred to as perceived vulnerability, is thought to be key in motivating an individual to act in response to a fear appeal.It is the perception of the probability and extent to which they might experience the threat.Perceived severity, however, is the degree to which the person believes that they will be harmed if the threat is experienced. These threat components form the perceptual trigger for the fear reaction. Higher levels of perceived susceptibility have been found to increase the degree to which people are critical of the message. However, subjects report more positive thoughts about the recommendation and negative emotions associated with the threat when susceptibility is high. Higher levels of perceived susceptibility are associated with greater intention to change behavior in the manner recommended in the fear appeal message, and are a strong determinant of intentions and behavior, even in the face of weak arguments.[6] It is thought that when perceived susceptibility is high, defense motivations prevent even poor information or weak arguments from detracting from the message’s impact on intention. As influential as it appears to be, susceptibility has still been found in some cases to have a much less direct effect on motivation to act on the message than, for instance, self efficacy beliefs or response efficacy.[7]

Perceived Severity, the extent to which the individual believes they will be adversely affected by the threat has a significant effect on persuasion. Though, in some cases, persuasion has been found to be aided by lowering severity,[8] the majority of the fear appeal research has found just the opposite. However, it is important to distinguish perceived severity of the threat from the actual fear elicited. The former is considered to be an entirely cognitive process, while the latter is an emotional process. Some have even argued that cognitive processes in the context of fear appeals are more important than emotional ones. Research has found that the effect of fear on intentions is mediated by the perceived severity.[9] That is, fear does not act directly on intentions, but increases the level of perceived severity, which in turn raises intentions to act on the message. Indeed, the strength of the fear appeal has been found to be positively correlated with the perceived severity of the threat. Severity seems to produce the strongest effects on perceptions.

Fear StrengthEdit

The strength of the fear elicited by the message is also an important determinant of the subject’s intentions to change the target behavior. Fear strength is distinct from threat severity in that, as mentioned before, fear strength is related to the emotion of fear, whereas threat severity is considered to be an entirely cognitive process. Some early research found that higher levels of fear produced defensive reactions, compelling the researchers to caution that low or moderate levels were the most effective.[10] With rare exception [11] strength of the fear elicited has been consistently found to be positively correlated with behavior change. This positive linear correlation is ubiquitous in fear appeal research and has laid to rest the curvilinear relationship implied by some of the earliest research. Strength of fear has been found to be positively correlated, as expected, with arousal (Schwarz, Servay, Kumpf 1985). Curiously, however, some of the early research found that low fear appeal strength was the most persuasive (Janis and Feshbach 1954.) Strength of fear alone is not enough to motivate change in behavior as strong fear with no recommended action, or a recommended action that is not easily performed, may result in the exact opposite effect. According to Sternthal and Craig (1974), fear strength affects attitude change more than it does intentions. They argue that although persuasion increases when fear rises from low to moderate levels, when rising from moderate to high levels, it actually decreases.

Some have even gone so far as to argue that fear is an entirely unnecessary component of an effective appeal as perceived efficacy is more predictive of intention to change behavior than either element of perceived threat (Ruiter, 2003). The tendency for higher levels of fear to raise defensive control responses, it is argued, suggests that fear is not useful and that efficacy may be able to bring about intention and behavior change by itself. Another argument states that since higher levels of personal efficacy are necessary, the target of the fear appeal that is most likely to act is one that was most likely to change their behavior to begin with (Ruiter, 2003). The implication is that another tact (other than fear) is necessary.

Individual CharacteristicsEdit

Also of interest in the fear appeals literature has been the contribution of individual characteristics (Brouwers & Sorrentino, 1993). The goal has been to understand which individual differences in personality or psychological traits contribute or detract from the effectiveness of the fear appeal. Individual moderating variables studied thus far include trait anxiety (Witte & Allen, 2000), age, ethnicity, gender, coping style (Rogers & Mewborn, 1976), locus of control (Burnett, 1981), self-esteem, perceived vulnerability, need for cognition and uncertainty orientation (Brouwers & Sorrentino, 1993). Of these, uncertainty orientation and need for cognition have been found to interact with the level of threat. Uncertainty orientation is an individual’s characteristic response to uncertainty. That is, whether they attend to or avoid and ignore the source of the uncertainty. Those with an uncertainty orientation tend to be more motivated to deeply process the information presented as the personal relevance increases, whereas those with a certainty orientation will actively avoid it (Brouwers & Sorrentino, 1993). Some early studies examined other characteristics, such as individual thresholds for fear arousal, to see if they moderated the effect of fear on persuasion. A study by Janis and Feshbach (1954) found that those with lower fear arousal thresholds were the least compelled to act by the high fear appeals, as they tended to react with defensive control responses.[12] Lower threshold subjects were also more easily persuaded by counterarguments following the fear appeal. Trait anxiety has also been the subject of some of the early research, which has since been found to have no discernable effect on persuasion (Witte & Allen, 2000).

Perceived EfficacyEdit

Quite possibly the most integral element of an effectively persuasive fear appeal, and more predictive of action than fear arousal, is perceived efficacy.[13] Perceived efficacy has two components; perceived self efficacy and perceived response efficacy. Perceived self efficacy is the extent to which an individual believes they are able to avert the threat presented in the fear appeal message. Though there has been some concern that repeated exposure may result in a ‘fatalism’ effect, in which individuals experience a form of learned helplessness in regard to the threat, the majority of the research shows that self efficacy is essential for persuasion in fear appeals (Hastings, Stead, Webb, 2004). Perceived response efficacy, the belief that the action recommended will avert the threat, is another important fear appeal element. If the individual does not believe that he or she is capable of averting the threat, it is likely that denial or other defensive responses will be produced in order to lower the fear.[14] Some research has found that perceived efficacy is more predictive of intention to change behavior than either element of perceived threat (Ruiter, et al., 2003).

Defense MechanismsEdit

The previous components are thought to determine what response an individual has to the message. One of these potential reactions to the fear appeal that is of the most negative consequence is that of the defensive fear control reaction. In response to the fear appeal, an individual may form the intent to change their behavior. However, when either self or response efficacy is low, the individual, perceiving that they are unable to avert the threat, may rely on defensive avoidance to lower their fear. Some have argued that fear appeals are unnecessary as defensive avoidance reactions have been found in some studies to be positively correlated with strength of fear and negatively with perceived efficacy (Ruiter, et al., 2003). The required balance of fear and efficacy levels has been the subject of much research, with some finding that moderate to high levels of fear are unnecessary in changing intentions. In fact, they argue, what is important is the ratio of these to each other. Gore and Bracken (2005) found that even with low levels of threat, they were able to take individuals who had started to exhibit defensive fear control reactions to move toward danger control (intention change) reactions. Another way of defending yourself against fear appeals is prior knowledge, according to one study, individuals are less likely to be influenced by a fear appeal if they have prior knowledge.[15]


Over the last half century, a tremendous amount of research has been done on the influence of fear on persuasion. A multitude of theories and models have been derived from this research with significant overlap between them. The attempt with each of these has been to conceptualize the influence of fear on persuasion so as to better understand how to employ it in addressing the public on a number of social issues.

The Parallel Process ModelEdit

Suggests that the primary variable relevant to fear appeal induced persuasion is not the experience of fear, itself, but the threat. The experience of fear and the perceptions of threat are distinguished in that the former is considered an emotional reaction and the latter a set of cognitions. Parallel process model proposes that it is the attempt to control these cognitions that is the basis of the fear appeal persuasion process.

The Extended Parallel Process ModelEdit

The newest of the fear appeal models, EPPM brings together many variables that are well established in the literature. Expanding on the parallel process model’s perspective of threat being the primary motivator, EPPM incorporates the drive model’s defensive, or fear control motivation and PMT’s danger control response. In EPPM, a threat is evaluated and the ability to deal with the threat is as well. As a consequence, one of two reactions is possible; a defensive one in which fear is controlled at the expense of any further action, or a danger control reaction in which behavior is changed in order to reduce the fear aroused by the threat. In addition to these, it is considered possible that there is no response at all. In EPPM, it is critical that the individual considers the action to be taken as being able to prevent the threat from occurring and that they believe they are capable of performing the actions necessary to accomplishing this.[16]

Drive theoryEdit

Asserts that the fear elicited by the message produces an internal drive to reduce the experience of fear. In doing so, the individual may attempt to reduce the fear by changing their behavior according to the recommended course of action. This theory is similar to learning theory in that it proposes that the fear reducing behavior reinforces itself.

Subjective Expected Utility TheoryEdit

SEU has been widely disregarded since its addition to the fear appeal models, it being an entirely cognitive process which neglects any role of fear in the process of persuasion. This theory incorporates evaluations of the various responses that can be chosen in order to achieve one’s motivations and goals. Subsequent research has not found this to be the case.

See alsoEdit


  1. Sprinkle, R., Hunt, S.; Simonds, C.; Comadena, M. (2006). Fear in the Classroom: An Examination of Teachers’ Use of Fear Appeals and Students’ Learning Outcomes. Communication Education 55 (4): 389–402.
  2. Spence, H.E., Moinpour, R. (1972). Fear Appeals in Marketing. A Social Perspective. Journal of Marketing 36 (3): 39.
  3. Leventhal, H (1971). Fear appeals and persuasion: the differentiation of a motivational construct. American Journal of Public Health 61 (6): 1208.
  4. Floyd, D.L., Prentice-Dunn, S.; Rogers, R.W. (2000). A meta-analysis of research on protection motivation theory. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 30 (2): 407–429.
  5. Gore, T.D., Bracken, C.C. (2005). Testing the theoretical design of a health risk message: Reexamining the major tenets of the extended parallel process model. Health Education and Behavior 32 (1): 27–41.
  6. Hoog, N., de, Stroebe, W., & Wit, J. B. F (2005). The impact of fear appeals on processing and acceptance of action recommendations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31 (1): 24–33.
  7. Ruiter, R.A., Kok, G., Verplanken, B., & Brug, J. (2001). Evoked fear and effects of appeals on attitudes to performing breast self-examination: An information-processing perspective.. Health Education Research, 16 (3): 307–319.
  8. Keller, P.A. (1999). Converting the unconverted: The effect of inclination and opportunity to discount health-related fear appeals.. The Journal of Applied Psychology 84 (3): 403–415.
  9. Rogers, R.W., Mewborn, C.R. (1976). Fear appeals and attitude change: Effects of a threat's noxiousness, probability of occurrence, and the efficacy of coping responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34 (1): 54–61.
  10. Janis, I.L., Feshbach, S. (1954). Personality differences associated with responsiveness to fear-arousing communications. Journal of Personality 23 (2): 154–166.
  11. Keller, P.A. (1999). Converting the unconverted: The effect of inclination and opportunity to discount health-related fear appeals.. The Journal of Applied Psychology 84 (3): 403–415.
  12. Janis, I.L., Feshbach, S. (1954). Personality differences associated with responsiveness to fear-arousing communications. Journal of Personality 23 (2): 154–166.
  13. Ruiter, R.A., Kok, G., Verplanken, B., & Brug, J. (2001). Evoked fear and effects of appeals on attitudes to performing breast self-examination: An information-processing perspective.. Health Education Research, 16 (3): 307–319.
  14. Witte, K., Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior 27 (5): 591–615.
  15. Averbeck, Joshua M, Allison Jones and Kylie Robertson (2011). Prior Knowledge and health messages:An Examination Of Affect As Heuristics And Information As Systematic Processing For Fear Appeals. Southern Communication Journal: 35–54.
  16. Witte, K., Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior 27 (5): 591–615.
  • Dillard, J.P., & Anderson, J.W. (2004). The role of fear in persuasion. Psychology & Marketing, 21, 909-926.
  • Ruiter, R. A. C., Abraham, C., & Kok, G. (2001). Scary warnings and rational precautions: A review of the psychology of fear appeals. Psychology and Health, 16, 613-630.
  • Witte, K. (1992). Putting the fear back into fear appeals: The extended parallel process model. Communication Monographs, 59, 329-349.
  • Witte, K. & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health Education & Behavior, 27(5), 591-615.
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