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Boo! Now, Do What I Say

A new meta-study finds fear-based appeals are consistently effective.
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(Photo: Andrei Verner/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Andrei Verner/Shutterstock)

As an election year approaches, Americans can get ready for a barrage of advertisements, most of which will warn us of the dire consequences of voting Candidate X into office. Despite their disparagement by good-government groups, these negative pitches will no doubt dominate the airwaves, and for good reason: Fear-based appeals work.

That's the conclusion of a just-published study looking at a half-century worth of research on the subject. It finds this approach doesn't have an especially large impact on its recipients, but it almost always produces the desired outcome to some extent.

"These appeals are effective at changing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors," says psychologist Dolores Albarracin, who co-authored the study with her University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign colleagues Melanie Tannenbaum and Kristina Wilson, along with four other researchers. "There are very few circumstances under which they are not effective, and there are no identifiable circumstances under which they backfire."

Enjoy your Halloween. Just don't think the attempts to frighten you will stop after the little witches and goblins have gone home.

In the journal Psychological Bulletin, the researchers describe an exhaustive meta-analysis of 127 papers. The experiments were conducted between 1962 and 2014, and featured more than 27,000 participants. All of the studies involved exposing people to a message designed to induce fear. The studies measured the response to such messages in terms of changed attitudes, intentions, or behaviors. They also used a comparison group of some kind.

The researchers measured, among other things, the amount of fear the message attempted to arouse, the extent to which it depicted the viewer or reader as personally susceptible to some bad outcome, and whether it contained "efficacy messages." Those are defined as "a statement that assures message recipients that they are capable of performing the fear's recommended actions, and/or that performing the recommended actions will result in desirable consequences."

The conclusions the researchers reached were unequivocal. "Fear appeals were successful at influencing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors across nearly all conditions that were analyzed," they write. "Fear appeals consistently work."

That said, some work better than others.

"We found that fear appeals were more effective when the message depicted relatively high amounts of fear, included an efficacy message, and stressed susceptibility and severity related to the concerns being addressed," the researchers write.

"We also found that fear appeals were more effective when they recommended one-time-only behaviors, and when audiences included a higher percentage of women."

So "Don't vote for X" is more effective than "Exercise regularly or you'll die sooner," presumably because the fear induced by the message dissipates over time.

These results are dismaying, but not surprising. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we would be susceptible to fear-based messages, since our ancient ancestors who heeded advice to "Look out for that tiger!" were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

So, enjoy your Halloween. Just don't think the attempts to frighten you will stop after the little witches and goblins have gone home.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.