Fear and Fear Appeals



 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:

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.

(Snipes, R.L.,  LaToure, M.S. & Bliss,S.J., 1999) 


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.


7 thoughts on “Fear and Fear Appeals

  1. Hey Anthony! Great blog post, it really got me thinking about the efficacy of public health campaigns. Like most students enrolled in an Albertan public school, we were required to participate in various anti-drug programs, such as the D.A.R.E, which rely on fear-based learning, or positive punishment. In retrospect, it seems that this model was ineffective in curbing drug usage among my peers, and it made me wonder about what actually makes such a program more or less effective. I found a paper that delves into what makes health promotion campaigns effective or ineffective. As you mentioned in your post, the effectiveness of this form of learning comes from the individual engaging in behaviour that reduces their feeling of fear. The paper raises an interesting idea, in that messages which promote fear or anxiety, may end up being ineffective in reducing behaviours that themselves are anxiety or fear reducing, such as drinking alcohol or smoking. This is because the fear response of from such messages may actually end up eliciting the unwanted behaviour. I thought that this was an interesting position and was curious to hear what thoughts, if any, you have on it.



    • Hey Micha! Great thought! Yes, the rejection of fear appeals is a large area of interest for the advertising industry, as well as NGOs such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Anti-smokimg campaigns, the D.A.R.E. program which you brought up, and road safety committees. In Australia, the death of teens due to distracted driving was on the rise (teens make up only 15 percent of the driving population, yet they made up more than 27 percent of the fatalities in car accidents), and so, the Australian government got together to try and do something about it. They were able to create advertisements that were based on fear appeals, but sidestepped the issue of rejection by the first 10 to 15 seconds of the ad being cool and edgy (four guys on the way to a football game, one guy gets a text from a cheerleader, and they’re all chiming in on what to say back to her.) . The remainder of the ad was violent to a point. Showing the four boys getting into a collision, but instead of showing them dying, it showed a dog, or a child getting hit by their car. There were several versions of this advertisement. Studies showed that after exposure to the advertisements, the rate of teen death by automobile went down! So this scenario ends in a happy outcome. Have you found any research about times when fear appeals were completely useless, and even caused the opposite reaction the ad wanted to get? Any thoughts on those?


      Burrell, A., Gray, T.L. & Gray, B. (2007). Less means more when it comes to fear appeals and teenage drivers. University of Wollongong. 1-13. https://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi%3Farticle%3D2224%26context%3Dedupapers&ved=0ahUKEwiu_JX5kanSAhVEx2MKHZG7Db0QFggaMAA&usg=AFQjCNFIEySo3mMA8Z5qjfz4zZcQRaT-9g


  2. Fear, how I love and hate this phenomenon. I had a pretty big issue with fear growing up as a young child, but fortunately have been able to face it much more confidently as an adult.

    I found an article that looks at fear as an emotional learning process in social relations with others. That is to say that fear draws us to the unknown and prepares us for the first, where others are able to then confirm or deny that we should fear something. It talks about the opportunities fear opens so individuals are able to learn about unknown situations.

    Golkar, A., & Olsson, A. (2016). Immunization against social fear learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 145(6), 665.


    • This time around I didn’t actually look far into the cognition of fear itself, but the relationship between social cognition and fear appeals. But as you said, fear is part of the juvenile learning process. Fear is an important emotion to get comfortable with, as it is this emotion that has the power to save us in evolutionarily terrifying situations. For example: many human beings have innate fears to snakes and spiders, and those who don’t have the fear still have a general uneasiness around arachnids and reptiles. My point is, while a part of life is growing to conquer your fears, some fears are perfectly reasonable and trigger responses to save yourself from an untimely death to which too many of our ancestors of previous generations have succumbed to. I personally have a fear of heights, and while I could work on it and try to become a more adventurous and risk taking individual, I choose to keep both feet planted firmly on the ground to ensure I never find myself in a situation in which I fall to my death. Thanks for the response Derek! Great idea.

      Steimer, P. (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues Clinical Neuroscience. 4(3), 231–249. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181681/#__ffn_sectitle


  3. I recall many of our assemblies were based on similar fear inducing approaches to ideas. Drugs, bullying, and smoking were common topics. Though I believe some approaches can be counter productive. After being told countless times not to smoke many people end up wondering what all the hubbub is about. In fact, tobacco companies ran anti-smoking campaigns in the 90’s that showed graphic images on TV and promoted parents to talk with their children about the dangers of smoking. One might assume that everyone intakes and processes this information in a rational and logical manner. However, this campaign was thought to strengthen youth’s intention to smoke. This effect was thought to spur from a sort of “hidden fruit” interpretation. That is to think, if they keep telling us not to do it.. it must be really good!

    I’m not saying that all viewers would interpret the information this way. Although, it is interesting to know that such a strategy can have the complete opposite effect than intended. (or the completely correct effect for our conspiracy theorists out there)



  4. Hey Anthony,

    After reading your blog I did some research on how effective public service announcements regarding drug prevention are in terms of youth. I came across this 2017 published article that studied “at-risk youth” and their understanding of PSAs about drugs that were aired on Canadian television in the late 2000s/early 2010s. From the results they concluded that it did not affect the group in the way that the PSAs meant to affect them. In some cases they found the youth saying that the ads were not informative, nor providing them with resources for support. I think this is a good example of how fear-based PSAs can not be effective in terms of reaching their target audience, and needs to be reevaluated to provide better campaigns that can, in fact, help youth that are “at-risk” change their lifestyles.

    I also found it funny that you mentioned that if an ad is too “extra” that it actually have negative effects as well. You should check out the JonTronShow episode about drug PSAs on YouTube for some great (funny) examples of ridiculous drug ads:

    Ti, L., Fast, D., Small, W., & Kerr, T. (2017). Perceptions of a drug prevention public service announcement campaign among street-involved youth in Vancouver, Canada: a qualitative study. Harm Reduction Journal, 14(1), 3.

    JonTron – The Weird World of PSAs


  5. In an article by Lau et al. (2016) the effect of fear appeal imagery was studied for ability to decrease unprotected anal intercourse in men who have sex with other men. The researchers used three groups for this study: a group exposed to STD cognitive awareness approach, a group exposed to STD cognitive awareness and fear appeal imagery, and a control group exposed to HIV information. The level and intensity of fear emotions were then collected. The researchers found that there was an immediate increase in fear emotions and intensity for participants exposed to STD cognitive and fear appeal imagery approach, but no lasting impact after retest three months later. The researchers also found a decrease in unprotected anal intercourse compared to baseline, in all groups in the last month of testing. However, because of the similarity in level of decrease present in all groups, the researchers conclude that this effect is not simply do to the fear appeal. The fear appeal approach to HIV prevention may not be as effective as it has been in other areas of health promotion.

    Lau, J. T., Lee, A. L., Tse, W. S., Mo, P. K., Fong, F., Wang, Z., Cameron, L. D., & Sheer, V. (2016). A randomized control trial for evaluating efficacies of two online cognitive interventions with and without fear-appeal imagery approaches in preventing unprotected anal sex among Chinese men who have sex with men. AIDS and Behaviour 20(9). DOI: 10.1007/s10461-015-1263-z


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