Threatening communication: a qualitative study of fear appeal effectiveness beliefs among intervention developers, policymakers, politicians, scientists, and advertising professionals

G.J.Y. Peters*, R.A.C. Ruiter, G. Kok

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

34 Citations (Web of Science)


Threatening communication is a widely applied method in behavior change interventions, which at the same time has been heavily criticized in the psychological literature. The current paper describes a study of the reasons for this persistent wide application of threatening communication. We conducted qualitative interviews with 33 key actors in behavior change intervention development in The Netherlands. Specifically, we interviewed intervention developers, policymakers, politicians, scientists, and advertising professionals. The interviews were transcribed and subsequently coded using NVivo. We found that participants most closely involved with the actual intervention development were generally convinced that threatening information was to be prevented, but often did not understand the exact processes involved. They were often under the impression that rather than a potent efficacy enhancing element, a behavioral suggestion would suffice to prevent threatening communication from backfiring. As participants were further removed from the actual intervention development, they generally tended to be more in favor of threatening communication. The main reasons for use of threatening information were to attract attention or prompt self-reflection through confrontation, because target population members were assumed to like threatening information and respond rationally to increased risk perceptions by changing their behavior, or simply because no alternatives were available. In addition, intervention developers frequently had to deal with supervisors or funders who preferred threatening communication. Thus, when communicating with practitioners, it seems fruitful to provide them with a toolbox of evidence-based behavior change methods that promote adaptive, rather than maladaptive, behavior; to promote basing interventions on the most relevant behavioral determinants as identified by determinant analyses; and to equip intervention developers with the tools to persuade other key stakeholders that fear is a bad counselor.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-79
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014


  • Politicians
  • Intervention developers
  • Fear appeals
  • Risk perception
  • Advertising professionals
  • Behavior change
  • Scientists
  • Policymakers
  • Intervention development
  • RISK

Cite this