Research output

Ignoring theory and misinterpreting evidence: the false belief in fear appeals

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

Associated researcher

Associated organisations


Use of fear appeals assumes that when people are emotionally confronted with the negative effects of their behavior they will change that behavior. That reasoning is simple and intuitive, but only true under specific, rare circumstances. Risk-perception theories predict that if people will experience a threat, they want to counter that threat. However, how they do so is determined by their coping efficacy level: if efficacy is high, they may change their behavior in the suggested direction; if efficacy is low, they react defensively. Research on fear appeals should be methodologically sound, comparing a threatening to a non-threatening intervention under high and low efficacy levels, random assignment, and measuring behavior as outcome. We critically review extant empirical evidence and conclude that it does not support positive effects of fear appeals. Nonetheless, their use persists, and is even promoted by health psychology researchers, causing scientific insights to be ignored or misinterpreted.

    Research areas

  • Journal Article, Fear appeals, threatening communication, SHOWING LEADS, extended parallel process model, CIGARETTE WARNING LABELS, HEALTH MESSAGES, 2-YEAR FOLLOW-UP, graphic health warnings, NEUROSCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE, review, SMOKING-CESSATION PROGRAMS, SELF-AFFIRMATION, BEHAVIOR-CHANGE, PROTECTION MOTIVATION THEORY, AROUSING COMMUNICATIONS, Humans, Research, Health Promotion, Motivation, Behavioral Medicine, Psychological Theory, Health Behavior, Fear, Politics, Adaptation, Psychological
View graph of relations


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-125
Number of pages15
JournalHealth Psychology Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018