Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories

Melanie B. Tannenbaum, Justin Hepler, Rick S. Zimmerman, Lindsey Saul, Samantha Jacobs, Kristina Wilson, Dolores Albarracín

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Fear appeals are a polarizing issue, with proponents confident in their efficacy and opponents confident that they backfire. We present the results of a comprehensive meta-analysis investigating fear appeals' effectiveness for influencing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. We tested predictions from a large number of theories, the majority of which have never been tested meta-analytically until now. Studies were included if they contained a treatment group exposed to a fear appeal, a valid comparison group, a manipulation of depicted fear, a measure of attitudes, intentions, or behaviors concerning the targeted risk or recommended solution, and adequate statistics to calculate effect sizes. The meta-analysis included 127 articles (9% unpublished) yielding 248 independent samples (NTotal = 27,372) collected from diverse populations. Results showed a positive effect of fear appeals on attitudes, intentions, and behaviors, with the average effect on a composite index being random-effects d = 0.29. Moderation analyses based on prominent fear appeal theories showed that the effectiveness of fear appeals increased when the message included efficacy statements, depicted high susceptibility and severity, recommended one-time only (vs. repeated) behaviors, and targeted audiences that included a larger percentage of female message recipients. Overall, we conclude that (a) fear appeals are effective at positively influencing attitude, intentions, and behaviors; (b) there are very few circumstances under which they are not effective; and (c) there are no identified circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1178-1204
Number of pages27
JournalPsychological bulletin
Volume141
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 2015

Keywords

  • Fear appeals
  • Health communication
  • Meta-analysis
  • Risk

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)

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    Tannenbaum, M. B., Hepler, J., Zimmerman, R. S., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K., & Albarracín, D. (2015). Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories. Psychological bulletin, 141(6), 1178-1204. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039729