Covid-19 has shown that fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator of behavioral change and decision-making. Despite experiencing different variations of the flu virus every year, Americans responded to the novel-coronavirus with mass compliance to mask mandates and shutdowns, while anticipating the quick arrival of a magical cure. Through weeks of lockdowns where businesses were destroyed and lives ruined, we were continually told a return to normal would come only when everyone is fully vaccinated.
Human response to fear is something that has been under the microscope for decades. Since at least the 1930s, social scientists have been studying the effects of fear appeals, or fear messages, on human behavior. What is a fear appeal, and to what extent did an understanding of fear-based behavior shape the Covid-19 narrative?
A fear appeal is a carefully contrived message meant to influence attitude and or, behavioral change. An effective message will contain two elements ̶ ̶ ̶ the threat itself, and the recommended course of action. The appeal should focus on the intended target’s perceptions of how the threat directly affects them. If the message is shaped correctly, it should make them believe there would be dire consequences for not complying with the recommended steps to alleviate the danger. According to the book, Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century, developing a fear-based message is an art “which requires an intricate understanding of human behavior.”
One of the most influential studies concerning people’s reactions to media messaging occurred after the War of the World’s radio broadcast in 1938. They conducted this study to examine the panic that ensued as millions of people reacted to the play as if they believed Earth was really being invaded by Martians.
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