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Research - Fear Appeals

Traditional health education strategies frequently depend, to a large extent, on providing information through health communication campaigns. In the case of substance use, the messages communicated are almost exclusively focused on the health risks and the pharmacological dangers of use. Such fear-based communications essentially seek to frighten the target population into being healthy, but they can rapidly lose credibility when individuals begin to regard the negative consequences depicted as relatively improbable.

Whereas many traditional prevention efforts focus intensively on problems and deficits, the content of social norms interventions consistently highlights the attitudinal and behavioral solutions and assets that are the actual norms of a target population. An example of this dramatic shift in content is that marked difference between fear-based messages of traditional prevention campaigns ("This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs!") and the positive, health-focused messages of the social norms approach ("Most students choose not to use!).

Some community members and stakeholders may be staunch defenders of the "scare tactic approach" despite scant evidence of its effectiveness. Social norms project staff should inform these individuals that scare and fear-base appeals are rarely effective (Sutton, 1982; Soames Job, 1988; Goldberg et al., 1991; Worden and Flynn, 1999; Taubman Ben-Ari, 2000; Shadel et al., 2002;) and that, by vividly focusing public attention on the problem, they inadvertently serve to perpetuate the very misperceptions that the social norms approach is designed to reduce.


Goldberg, L., Bents, R., Bosworth, E., Trevisan, L., and Elliot, D.L. Anabolic steroid education and adolescents: do scare tactics work? Pediatrics. 1991: 87(3), 283-286.

Shadel, W.G., Niaura, R., Abrams, D.B. Adolescents' reactions to the imagery displayed in smoking and antismoking advertisements. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2002:16(2), 173-176.

Soames Job, R.F., Effective and ineffective use of fear in health promotion campaigns. American Journal of Public Health. 1988: 78(2), 163-167.

Sutton, S. R. Fear-arousing communications: a critical examination of theory and research. In: Eiser, R.J. (Ed.) Social Psychology and Behavioral Medicine. 1982: Wiley, p. 303-337.

Taubman Ben-Ari, O. The effect of reminders of death on reckless driving: a terror management perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2000:9(6), 196-199.

Worden, J. and Flynn, B. Shock to stop? British Medical Journal. 1999:318; 66.