From my upcoming book “Without a Shot Indeed: How Social Science and the Arts of Persuasion Induced Compliance with Tyranny.”

According to a study entitled Appealing to fear: A meta-analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories,[1] fear messages are most effective when presented with an efficacy statement and the perception of being highly vulnerable to the perceived danger. An efficacy statement is the suggestion of a desired course of action which is said to alleviate the threat. If the threat is presented along with a solution, it is more likely to affect behavior in a desired way. This stands to reason. Looking back to Chapter One we saw what Perloff[2] described as the fear-then relief technique. He stated that the feeling of relief associated with the presented solution is inductive to attitude change. This is because the feeling of being relieved produces a mindless state where one is less likely to ask any questions if they know they no longer face the alleged danger. [3]

This study also claims to answer the question as to whether the use of fear appeals can backfire. This has been somewhat controversial with many scholarly articles claiming they do. According to Perloff, fear appeals can backfire if it pushes an individual too far into what is referred to as fear control, opposed to danger control. Fear control is when in an individual is acting to keep his fear at bay, which is not the desired behavior a fear message is supposed to induce. An effective appeal motivates one to act to alleviate the danger, requiring the desired behavioral change. There is no better example of a fear appeal than the messaging driving the Covid-19 agenda. The appeal is getting ill from a new, unknown virus and the recommended course of action is total compliance with government dictates. This has been highly effective due to a constant stream of never-ending propaganda depicting Covid-19 as a global pandemic. Interestingly, fear messages are most effective when presented with a onetime behavioral adjustment opposed to repeated behaviors.[4] Mask wearing, and economic shutdowns cannot be considered one-time changes, but extreme courses of action requiring dedication. This will be discussed in greater detail soon. The overall findings of this study show that fear appeals are remarkably effective in influencing behavioral and attitude changes.

There was a different approach taken by the authors that examined the effects of fear messages in their totality. Typically, one of three theoretical approaches is taken when examining the effects fear has on behavior. These are message content, recommended behavioral change and the intended audience.[5] This study included all three in their analysis to gain a better understanding of how fear influences one to act. It is reasonable to conclude that viewing an individual’s motivation to act through the lens of only one of these approaches would be limited in scope. This is the problem of scientific studies. They are almost always based on a model which defines the boundaries in which the study can take place. When it comes to studies concerning human behavior, they too are based on models. Models mind you, that fall within the parameters of an established science of human behavior.

There are several models of behavior from which fear appeals are studied. The drive reduction model, the parallel process model, the extended parallel process model, the protection motivation theory, the situational theory of publics and last but certainly not least, the U.S. public health service belief model,[6] also known simply as the health belief model or, HBM. The HBM, will be examined more deeply than the others for obvious reasons. The year 2020 will always be remembered because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the damage it wrought. Most of this was due to the perceived danger of a new killer virus where many people simply went along with the news being presented, without doing any substantial research for themselves.

The drive reduction model, according to Williams, views fear as a state of mind which puts one into a “drive mode” motivated by the need to alleviate the discomfort. Interestingly, there is some correlations to the fear-then-relief ideas. This model assumes that following the recommended course of action produces a reinforcing sense of relief. It also suggests that a fear message that produces little arousal is not enough to motivate behavioral change, the message must be almost, panic inducing. Perloff[7] notes that there must be an illusion of vulnerability present. If a person does not feel threatened, why would they follow along with recommended behavioral changes? The parallel and extended parallel process models are based on the idea that if pushed too hard, the fear appeal may not provoke the desired reaction. This was discussed earlier with fear control vs. danger control. Taking action to avoid danger is generally what the fear appeal is designed to do. People can control the emotion of fear without making any drastic behavioral changes. To avoid physical danger, however, requires making changes based on environmental factors. If the environment presents a dangerous situation, people will have to make changes of some kind to avoid it. The extended parallel process model looks at fear as something that causes one to reject the message altogether and it is the efficacy message, or a promise of solutions, that really motivates attitude change.

[1] Tunnenbaum, M, M., Helpe, J., Zimmerman, R, S., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K. & Albarracin, D. (2015) Appealing to fear: A meta-analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories. Psychological bulletin 141(6) pp. 1178-1204

[2] Perloff, R, M. The dynamics of persuasion: Communications and attitudes in the 21st century (2017) New York. Routledge

[3]Dolinski, D., Ciszek, M., Godlewski, K. & Zawadski, M. (2002) Fear-then-relief: Mindlessness and cognitive deficits. European journal of social; psychology, 32(4) pp. 435-447

[4] Tunnenbaum, M, M., Helpe, J., Zimmerman, R, S., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K. & Albarracin, D. (2015) Appealing to fear: A meta-analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories. Psychological bulletin 141(6) pp. 1178-1204

[5] Tunnenbaum, M, M., Helpe, J., Zimmerman, R, S., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K. & Albarracin, D. (2015) Appealing to fear: A meta-analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories. Psychological bulletin 141(6) pp. 1178-1204

[6] Williams, K, C. (2012) Fear appeal theory. International journal of economics and business research. (5) pp. 63-82

[7]Perloff, R, M. The dynamics of persuasion: Communications and attitudes in the 21st century (2017) New York. Routledge

2 thoughts on “From my upcoming book “Without a Shot Indeed: How Social Science and the Arts of Persuasion Induced Compliance with Tyranny.””

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