In elementary school, we had three assemblies per year with a focus on fear appeals. The first one in September was the “Don’t Smoke” assembly. The second in January was the “Safety Online” assembly, and the third assembly was the “Bad Influences” assembly. The goal from these assemblies was to get children to sit down are absorb the terrifying information being hurled at them in hopes that what was said in the assembly was horrid enough to prevent the elementary students from harm. What was the purpose of these assemblies? Did they work?
What is fear?
For this blog post, fear will be defined purely by a neurobiological standpoint. All social definitions of fear are irrelevant for this blog. Researchers determined that the amygdala is the seat of emotions and emotional recognition in others. When the amygdala is damaged, the ability to react appropriately to fearful stimulus is altered and the ability to recognize fear on the face of others is permanently damaged as well. In rats, this leads to a short lifespan in nature, as without the sense of fear and danger, and the sense to notice that other rats are scared, they will get targeted and eaten by prey. (Adolphis, R., et al. 1995)
How Does Fear Alter Cognition?
This is most easily observable in children. In the famous Little Albert experiment, Albert, was at first not afraid of rats, in fact, he quite enjoyed playing with them. Albert was subjected to classical conditioning in which the researcher taught Albert to be afraid of rats by exposing him to a loud bang every single time a rat or white/grey furry animal was present. In the end, Albert had a pathological aversion to all rodents, and the learned fear altered his cognition and ability to live normally. His HPA axis was also abused, so his reactions to all other forms of fear, such as important evolutionary ones, were muted. Point blank: Fear alters cognition by overstimulating the HPA axis, and creating extraneous psychological trauma. The cognition of a permanently altered being would be a shell of their former selves.(Ruiter, R.A.C., 2004) (World Heritage Encyclopedia, 1958)
Fear appeals are persuasive messages designed to terrify people by describing all the awful things that will happen to them if they do not subscribe to the behaviour that the message recommends. The fear appeal is extremely effective in marketing because as stated in the fear-as acquired- drive model, fear of emotional tension directly drives individuals to do what they can to alleviate the emotional distress. When a message induces fear, individuals may find that they adopt the intended behaviour to reduce or completely eliminate the discomfort of the fear. (Boss, S.R. 2015)
It should be noted that if the advertisement is too extra (too brutal, violent, sad, silly) the viewer will simply discard the appeal as being too unbelievable, and the desired behaviour will not occur. (Hastings, G., Stead, M. & Webb, J., 2004)
Three quick, fool proof ways to prevent the effect of fear appeals on your psyche:
- Literally avert your eyes. Studies show that if you distract yourself while watching these advertisements (listen to music, keep 37 tabs on your laptop open and try to find which tab the music is coming from while you “watch” the ad), you will not be as affected by the message, and thus, won’t purchase the emotional safety net.
- If the ad is not relevant to you. We cognitively distance ourselves from things we find either too garish, or a little too close to home. We use our confirmation bias to selectively filter out advertisements that we don’t agree with or that don’t apply to us. (ex: If you are watching a PSA to stop placing your laptop on your lap because it is decreasing your sperm count, and you don’t have the biological ability to produce sperm, you likely won’t be affected by the message. I am currently typing with the laptop on my lap and I am terrified, but too lazy to do anything about it. (Kesseles, L.T.E., et al., 2014)
- Finally, let go of the guilt associated with these types of advertisements. No need to feel anxious and guilty if you’ve done all you can to ensure the health of your offspring’s lungs. If they choose to smoke in the future, it wasn’t because you failed as a parent and should have shown them one more “how it’s made” video on cigarettes. It’s because your child is experiencing peer pressure, and shouldn’t have skipped the assembly on bad influences.
To cut this blog short:
I would encourage you to look up examples of fear appeal campaigns that have worked, and those who haven’t. Come up with your own fear based attack to get someone to participate in a behaviour of your choice. And finally, look up more ways to prevent falling victim to fear appeals. I have attached links for further reading.
Adolphs, R., et al. (1995). Fear and the Human Amygdala, Journal of Neuroscience, 15(9) 5879-9591.
Boss, S.R. (2015). What Do System Users Have to Fear? Using Fear Appeals to Engender Threats and Fear That Motivate Protective Security Behaviours. MIS Quarterly, 39(4) 387.
Hastings, G., Stead, M. & Webb, J. (2004). Fear Appeals in Social Marketing:Strategic and Ethical Reasons for Concern. Psychology and Marketing, 21(11), 961-986.
Kesseles, et al. (2014). Neuroscience Evidence for Defensive Avoidance of Fear Appeals. International Journal of Psychology, 9(2) 80-88.
Ruiter, R.A.C. (2004). Danger and Fear in Response to Fear Appeals: The Role of Need for Cognition. ManhBasic and Applied Social Psychology, 26(1), 13.
Snipes, R.L., LaToure, M.S. & Bliss, S.J. (1999). A Model of the Affects of Self-Efficacy on the Perceived Ethicality and Performance of Fear Appeals in Advertising. Journal of Buisness Ethics, 19(3), 272-285.
World Heritage Encyclopedia. (1958). John B. Watson, Chicago, Illinois, World Heritage Encyclopedia.