Academic Writing

Fear Appeals

Since 1953, fear appeals theory has undergone developments to keep up with the trends of the time. In the beginning, fear was the focus in fear appeals theories and perceived threat and perceived efficacy were introduced to the equation in the ’70s and ’80s. Past research on the subject matter was focused on conceptual and methodological issues and recent research, including the present study, focuses on quantitative methods to analyze fear appeals literature.

There are three main models of the fear appeals theory: Drive Theories, Parallel Response Models, and SEU Models. In fact, one could say there are four if one was to consider the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM), which draws upon elements from the former three models. Drive Theories is the oldest model that was used to explain fear appeal results. It suggested that the level of fear, aroused by a fear appeal, motivates actions. It proposed a U-shaped relationship between fear and attitude change, where a moderate amount of fear was thought to produce the most attitude change. The biggest contribution of the Parallel Response Model was the introduction of cognitive processing to the fear appeals theory. It introduced the idea that fear appeals produce danger-control and fear-control processes in subjects. The SEU models identify components and cognitive mediators that lead to message acceptance in fear appeals. The SEU models suggest that high-threat and high-efficacy produce the most message acceptance but fail to explain when and how.

I found the EPPM to be the most interesting of the models. The EPPM suggests that when people believe that they can perform the recommended response against a threat, they are more motivated to consciously think of ways to remove or lessen the threat. Usually, this means adopting the methods outlined in the message to control the danger. In contrast, when people doubt the efficiency of the recommended response or their ability to do it, they are motivated to control their fear and focus on eliminating the fear through denial.

The EPPM can be used to analyze how people have responded to the pandemic. It might also be noteworthy to pay attention to how their political affiliations and media consumption choices affect their responses to fear appeals as well. For example, the Far-Right has downplayed the threat of COVID by claiming that it is as dangerous as the common flu. They have also downplayed the effectiveness of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Whereas the media outlets considered to be liberal or Left-Leaning by the Far Right have portrayed COVID as a serious threat and have promoted mask-wearing and social-distancing as effective and necessary measures to tackle it.

The findings from the metanalyses conducted by Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000) suggest that high-threat fear, accompanied by equally high-efficacy messages is the most effective. It also suggests that feal appeals, without high-efficacy messages, run the risk of backfiring and producing defensive responses. In the light of this matter, do you think this is what happened with how the pandemic was portrayed and how it was received by American society? Was it portrayed as highly threatening and inevitable, making some people think that there’s not much they could do to protect themselves against it? Was there a lack of high-self efficacy and an overemphasis of high-threat that enabled certain Right Wing media institutions to strengthen their narrative of COVID being nothing more than the common flu or the ineffectiveness of wearing a mask? Hold on to that thought because you might want to consider the findings from the article I selected as well.

Gerjo Kok, Gjalt-Jorn Y. Peters … (2018) states that researchers have been misled in their interpretation when it comes to the effectiveness of fear appeals in promoting health behaviors. The study reviews empirical evidence to conclude that fear appeals are only effective in cases of high self-efficacy. The study uses smoking as an example to illustrate the discussion on fear appeals, with the goal of promoting political decision-making that is based on theory and evidence and suggests alternatives to fear appeals that can be used in health promotion messaging. The researchers suggest that fear appeals are more effective when combined with non-threatening messages that improve self-efficacy, which is in stark contrast to Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000)’s recommendations.

The article provides an example of how messages related to coping tactics have garnered more attention from smokers as compared to fear appeals. Applying the suggestions from Gerjo Kok, Gjalt-Jorn Y. Peters … (2018) to the COVID responses in populations can shed some light on the behaviors we have seen in American society. What if COVID was presented in the media with a heavier focus on coping rather than fear appeals? Would such an approach have been more effective? I am aware that COVID is a different kind of danger as compared to smoking, which can be avoided solely by choice, whereas a contagious virus is at times unavoidable. That said, the spread of COVID would have been lessened if stricter measures were taken and if people had adhered to guidelines from the very beginning. Taiwan, being in such close proximity to the epicenter of the disease managed to handle the pandemic much better than the West.


Gerjo Kok, Gjalt-Jorn Y. Peters, Loes T. E. Kessels, Gill A. ten Hoor & Robert

A. C. Ruiter (2018) Ignoring theory and misinterpreting evidence: the false belief in fear appeals,

Health Psychology Review, 12:2, 111-125, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2017.1415767

Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeals: Implications for Effective Public Health Campaigns. Health Education & Behavior27(5), 591–615.


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