The Effectiveness Of Fear-Arousing Communication In Adolescents


In many situations, fear appeals, or an informative communication about a threat to an individuals’ well?being CITATION Hod98 l 1033 (Hodgkins, Sheeran, & Orbell, 1998) are used to try to change intentions and alter behavior. The aim of this paper is to examine and discuss fear-arousing communication, adolescents, the effects of, and effectiveness of fear-arousing messages in adolescents. Adolescents serve as the target group because they are more open to deterrence messages compared to older age groups CITATION Bab96 l 1033 (Babin & Babin, 1996), and they react much more strongly to their emotions than adults or college students CITATION Bab96 l 1033 (Babin & Babin, 1996).

Therefore, increasing fear levels in adolescents through fear-rousing communication should be effective.

Fear-Arousing Communication

Fear Arousing Communication is a, “persuasive message that attempts to change people’s attitudes by arousing their fears.” CITATION Aro141 l 1033 (Aronson, Timothy.D.Wilson, & Robin.M.Akert, 2014) According to CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998), ” This hard approach usually reveals the following pattern: undesirable behavior (e.

g. unsafe sex) is associated with serious, negative effects, such as AIDS, in a penetrating or realistic way. A personal appeal is made to everyone displaying such behavior by emphasizing the tremendous risks they run and the dangers to which they are so extremely vulnerable. The depicted threat is meant to arouse such a great fear in the recipients of the message that they are motivated to change their behavior in accordance with the recommendations in the message, which are supposed to be effective against the threat and easy to carry out.

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” (p 121-122).

Fear evolved as a mechanism to protect humans from life-threatening situations. As such, nothing is more important than survival and the evolutionary primacy of the brain’s fear circuitry. Matter-of-fact, the brain’s fear circuitry is more powerful than the brain’s reasoning faculties CITATION Kay l 1033 (Williams). According to CITATION Jan67 l 1033 (Janis, 1967), “Fear is the central motivator for accepting behavior recommended in a message. If, however, the fear aroused is too great and not taken away by reassuring recommendations, defensive mechanisms would be activated, such as denying the threat, considering oneself not vulnerable to it or distrusting the sender of the message.” (p.166-255).


The World Health Organization (WHO), defines ‘Adolescents’ as individuals in the 10-19 years age group, CITATION WHO19 l 1033 (WHO, 2019). It is seen as the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood, adolescence can be a time of both disorientation and discovery. The transitional period can raise questions of independence and identity; as adolescents cultivate their sense of self, they may face difficult choices about academics, friendship, sexuality, gender identity, drugs, and alcohol, CITATION Dev l 1033 (Frye & Seidman, n.d.). Hence why they are one of the main target audiences for fear-arousing communication.

According to Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development, adolescents face Identity Vs Role Confusion, CITATION Ken191 l 1033 (Cherry, 2019), and in order to help form their identity, they try out different things to help them figure who they are in terms of what they like and don’t like. In this experimentation, they may find themselves engaging in behaviour that is deemed unsafe or wrong by society, either in regard to; the nature of the activity e.g. illegal drugs, or the age in which they are engaging in these activities e.g. premarital sex and underage alcohol drinking.

Friends, social groups, schoolmates, societal trends, and even popular culture all play an important role in shaping and forming the adolescent’s identity, CITATION Ken191 l 1033 (Cherry, 2019), and the influence of authority figures like parents and teachers on these adolescents is not as much as it was before. “The media including music, television, and most recently, the Internet are an important part of the adolescent’s ‘community.'”, CITATION Ame02 l 1033 ( American Psychological Association. , 2002), therefore Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in the media using fear-arousing communication, become the ‘authority’ figures and voices of caution or reason, in place of the adolescent’s parents or guardians.

Effects Of Fear-Arousing Comminication

Protection Motivation Theory and Fear AppealsAccording to the protection motivation theory CITATION Rog75 l 1033 (Rogers, 1975), an effective fear appeal communicates three pieces of information: (1) the magnitude of noxiousness of some event (i.e., severity), (2) the probability that the given event will occur if one does not perform adaptive behaviour or does not alter existing behaviours (i.e., vulnerability), and (3) the availability and effectiveness of a coping response that might reduce or eliminate the noxious stimulus (i.e., response efficacy). In later developments of the protection motivation theory CITATION Mad83 l 1033 (Maddux & Rogers, 1983) he issue of self?efficacy is introduced. Self?efficacy refers to the extent to which an individual believes s/he is able to engage in the coping response. Even when the suggested coping response is maximally efficient (i.e., it entirely eliminates the probability of the focal negative event), the given fear appeal may not result in any changes if an individual feels unable to adopt that particular response.

When an individual is exposed to a fear appeal, two major critical cognitions are triggered. The communicated probability of occurrence of the negative event raises cognitions about perceived vulnerability (which reflect how personally susceptible an individual feels to the communicated threat) and the communicated magnitude of noxiousness of the focal event raises cognitions about perceived severity (which reflect how serious the individual believes the threat would be to his or her own life), CITATION Iri17 l 1033 (Vermeir, Bock, & Kenhove, 2017).

According to the protection motivation theory, these cognitive processes arouse what is called “protection motivation” or the motivation to protect oneself from harm/negative consequences of the threat. If this protection motivation is sufficiently high, it directs behaviour toward avoidance of the threat and hence, leads to changed behavioural patterns. CITATION Iri17 l 1033 (Vermeir, Bock, & Kenhove, 2017)

Psychological ReactanceThe theory of psychological reactance explains that persuasive communication is sometimes experienced as a potential threat to freedom CITATION Bre66 l 1033 (Brehm, 1966) CITATION Bre81 l 1033 (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Reactance toward persuasive communication is determined by the extent to which the message is perceived as threatening to one’s freedom of choice and by the individual’s reconciliation of his or her behaviour with the recommended behaviour CITATION Alb03 l 1033 (Albarracin, Cohen, & Kumkale, 2003).

According to the theory of reactance, human beings tend to act contrary to a behavioural proscription that threatens their freedom of choice by simply engaging in the forbidden behaviour CITATION Hen06 l 1033 (Henriksen, Dauphinee, Wang, & Fortmann, 2006). In addition, proscription may lead to a situation in which the threatened freedom becomes more attractive CITATION Fog97 l 1033 (Fogarty, 1997). In some cases, it may even lead to aggression and hostility directed toward the source of the threat.

It is important to note that reactance will not necessarily occur when the individual perceives his or her freedom to be threatened, but is more likely to arise when he or she possesses the ability to defend it CITATION Bre81 l 1033 (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Otherwise, the individual may not recognize any threat at all, or may enter into a state of learned helplessness.

The Effectiveness Of Fear Arousing Communication In Adolescents

MethodsIn 1994, 784 adolescents participated in a study by CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998) into informative advertisements, i.e. 367 boys and 417 girls, with an average age of 16. These were pupils from four school communities for general secondary education in three medium-sized Dutch cities. During one teaching hour, a total of 34 classes were shown ten television advertisements and subsequently asked to evaluate these by filling out a questionnaire. It concerned six English-spoken advertisements (primarily Australian) that never had been shown in the Netherlands and were subtitled in Dutch. In addition, they chose four recent Dutch advertisements which were shown on television in 1994.

The films differed in terms of approach: four advertisements visualized the threat in a fear-arousing manner, whereas six of them brought the threatening message across in a humorous, erotic or informative way (other stylistic features of the message variables were not relevant in the selection). The films related to three problem areas: four of them were about road safety (driving too fast, alert driving, seat belts), five about safe sex (AIDS, use of condoms), and one about smoking (lung cancer). All participating adolescents were asked to evaluate the ten advertisements of which the sequence was randomized, CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998).

After each advertisement the adolescents gave their general opinion about its quality (the ratings varied from 1 = very bad, to 10 = very good) and mentioned whether or not they had seen it before. Each time they responded via a number of statements that were similar for each advertisement (the answer categories varied from 1 = agree entirely, to 5 = disagree entirely). Four statements formed together the dimension fear aroused (‘It’s a very hard ad’; ‘It gave me a tremendous shock’; ‘I empathize very much with what I saw’. The perception of the threat was measured by means of a statement about the seriousness of the danger (severity: ‘The ad is about a serious problem’) and a statement about the risk that the adolescents think they run (vulnerability: ‘This can also happen to me’). The perception of the solution was examined by means of a statement about the efficacy of the recommendation in the advertisement (‘It made very clear what you should do’) and a statement about the feasibility of the advice (self-efficacy) (‘The proposed solution will take me some effort’), CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998).

The acceptance of the message by the adolescents was determined with the statement ‘I take the advice to heart’. It is possible that they took heed of the warnings in the advertisements at an earlier occasion and already follow the offered advice. This confirmation of acceptance was examined with the statement ‘I’m already doing what the ad advises’. In this research setting the effectiveness of the shown information films was therefore not measured on the basis of changes in behavior but on the basis of behavioral intentions immediately after the confrontation with the threatening message.

Results and Discussion”Our study into the responses of adolescents to ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ television advertisements reveals that most of the advertisements do not differ much in terms of effectiveness. We must therefore conclude that there is no clear preference for one of the approaches.” CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998).

It seems as yet possible to get the information message across through arousing fear as well as through using humor and eroticism, even though the effects are rather small in general. It has become clear that the acceptance of the message is influenced by the extent to which adolescents had already accepted the message at a previous occasion, were already aware of the dangers, acknowledged that the advertisement was addressing a serious problem with which they also might be confronted one day, and to what extent the message included adequate advice that could be followed up without much effort. CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998)Showing an advertisement of high quality also contributed to the acceptance of half of the advertisements. Also the fear aroused had a moderate influence on the acceptance of the message in most of the fear-arousing advertisements. Variables that play a central role in theories on fear appeals (severity, vulnerability, response and self-efficacy) also prove to be important in this study, although they have only a moderate explanatory power. However, the variable ‘confirmation of acceptance of the message’, which had not yet been incorporated systematically into any research, seems to be the most important: participants who accepted the message had usually already done so at a previous occasion.


In all the research experiments with respect to fear-arousing information that have been carried out in the past forty years, it is usually assumed that the threatening message is relatively new to the public, CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998). In many information campaigns this is, however, not or no longer the case: the risks of unsafe sex, smoking and driving too fast may be considered to be common knowledge by now.

Nonetheless large groups of people continue to display risky sexual behavior, to smoke inveterately or to drive like road hogs. Public information services seek therefore new and harsher ways to hammer their messages into the heads of irresponsible people. CITATION Fri98 l 1033 (Wel & Knobbout, 1998)


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