social sciences

Policy Strategies #1 Fear Appeals

In my last posts I focused on psychological processes consumers go through, and methods companies use to sell products. Companies usually want you to actually go out and buy their products. But there might be institutions out there that want to refrain you from buying certain products. Usually these are products that are either damaging to our health or detrimental to the environment. For example in some countries the government has decided to put a higher tax on tobacco products to discourage people from buying these. But this isn’t the only strategy governments can use to decrease tobacco sales. Another strategy involves something calledfear appeals“.

You might have already been exposed to commercials on TV in which you are confronted with ex-smokers who ended up getting chronic diseases. With this type of scary imagery institutions will try to persuade you to either never start smoking or to stop smoking. This is an example of fear appeal usage. These types of messages are intended to entice feelings of fear, literally scaring you to either perform / not perform a behavior. Now you might think that this could be a great idea to decrease tobacco use in any given society. But unfortunately, depending on several factors, fear appeals can actually have opposite effects.

Say we want to target smokers, and we want them to stop. So we come up with a super creepy commercial that includes all the horrendous consequences of smoking. Will smokers stop after seeing our incredibly spooky message? Probably not. First, some psychological process might be happening within the smoker when being confronted with this message. They might be (unconsciously) thinking about their “self-efficacy“. Self-efficacy is our own measure of confidence we have in being able to perform certain behaviors. So our confidence in being able to stop smoking. For example: can I cut back from smoking 10 cigarettes a day to ‘only’ smoking 5? But then there is also “response efficacy“. This is whether we have confidence in the fact that we can avoid all the threats listed in the persuasion message by stopping with smoking. So if I stop smoking, will I decrease the chances of getting a lung disease? (Witte & Allen, 2000).

Ruiter, Kessels, Peters and Kok (2014) wrote an extensive article about the use of fear appeals. In their article they describe that up until now, not much evidence exists for the successful use of  these kinds of appeals. People tend to display defense mechanisms when being exposed to fearful consequences of their maladaptive behaviors. Maybe you have heard a smoker say something along the lines of “my grandma was a chain smoker her whole life and died at 96!”. So using these types of anecdotes to justify not having to quit.

Instead of just focusing on fear, Morales, Wu, and Fitzsimons (2012) added disgusting imagery to their appeals in order to persuade people into avoid performing certain behaviors. One of their studies focused on getting students to understand the negative effects of drugs. By using very disgusting visuals, the researchers managed to persuade students to refrain from using drugs.
To my knowledge, the participants of this study weren’t drugs users. So including disgust in fear appeals might help persuade those who aren’t performing certain behaviors yet.

In Norway they held a mass media campaign using fear appeals to persuade people to stop smoking. And researchers looked at actual smokers and the short term effects of this campaign. It turns out that actual smoking behaviors were not affected, but people did experience a small increase in the motivation to quit (Halkjelsvik, Lund, Kraft, & Rise, 2013).

But if fear appeals don’t work, how can we get people to stop? Bader, Boisclair, and Ferrence (2011) found that taxation might be the answer. This type of policy seems to work among young people and those with low socio-economic status. But it doesn’t have much effect on heavy or long-term smokers or those with substance abuse disorders. Therefore this could be a good method to help youth to not invest in cigarettes and possibly a life-long addiction.

Even though fear appeals don’t seem to be enough to get people to stop smoking, it might still have beneficial consequences. Fear appeals alone are probably not enough to even refrain people from ever starting to smoke. But countries who invest a lot time and money in tobacco control, can help to maintain the amount of smokers.These measures might be, for example, taxing tobacco products, limiting tobacco sales, and prohibition of smoking in public places. Statistics show us that countries with high tobacco control are better at maintaining tobacco sales (Whoint, 2016). And big tobacco companies will in turn focus on low tobacco control countries and will settle in these regions. The negative effects of tobacco use on human health has been long known, now it’s just a matter of time before we can enjoy a cigarette free world.


Bader, P., Boisclair, D., & Ferrence, R. (2011). Effects of tobacco taxation and pricing on smoking behavior in high risk populations: a knowledge synthesis. International journal of environmental research and public health,8(11), 4118-4139.

Halkjelsvik, T., Lund, K. E., Kraft, P., & Rise, J. (2013). Fear appeals in advanced tobacco control environments: the impact of a National Mass Media Campaign in Norway. Health education research, 28(5), 888-897.

Morales, A. C., Wu, E. C., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2012). How disgust enhances the effectiveness of fear appeals. Journal of Marketing Research,49(3), 383-393.

Ruiter, R. A., Kessels, L. T., Peters, G. J. Y., & Kok, G. (2014). Sixty years of fear appeal research: Current state of the evidence. International journal of psychology, 49(2), 63-70.

Whoint. (2016). WHO Western Pacific Region. Retrieved 8 March, 2016, from

Witte, K., & Allen, M. (2000). A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns. Health education & behavior, 27(5), 591-615.

Photo by Amanda Mills