Why threat and fear appeals don’t work

In previous models of road safety education, threat appeals and fear have been used to try and affect behaviour change.

Defining threats and fear

A threat indicates that an undesirable consequence can occur if certain behaviour is undertaken. Fear is an emotional reaction in response to a threat.

How ‘threat’ has been previously used as a behaviour change tool

  1. Attract and hold audience attention.
  2. Generate fear and anxiety about possible consequences of an action.
  3. Suggest coping techniques such as safe behaviour to reduce the threat and increase the audience’s confidence that they can and should adopt the safe behaviour.

How ‘fear’ has been previously used as a behaviour change tool

  1. Describe the threat suggesting the severity and vulnerability of the audience.
  2. The threat should be personally relevant.
  3. Recommend how to reduce or prevent the threat.

Why ‘fear’ and ‘threat’ don’t work

Young males from deprived backgrounds tend to be difficult to influence through these types of appeals due to deflection, peer pressure and self-efficacy.

Research from health education suggests that where the attempt to change attitudes shocks the recipients into feeling fear or other strong emotions, and the person cannot see a way in which their future actions could moderate these feeling, they will then disengage from the communication and do not fully or rationally process the information.

The literature on coping with psychological stress points out that threats need to be balanced with coping strategies.

YDIs, and Road Safety Education in general, that seeks to evoke shock or fear must also provide implementable and attractive means of reducing, removing or otherwise dealing with the presented threat. Otherwise anxiety may lead to denial of the personal relevance of the threat.

Best practice in road safety mass media campaigns: A literature review. Centre for Automotive Safety Research. Wundersitz, L.N., Hutchinson, T.P., J.E., Woolley, J.E. (2010).