Appealing to people's fears can be very effective and cause them to take appropriate action, but it can also have the opposite effect. By Professor Marc Wilson.
National MP Simon Bridges was recently quoted as saying it was a good thing if people got vaccinated because they were worried about Covid, but he didn't think "we need scare tactics".
His comments followed a hotly debated September press conference in which Government adviser and disease-modelling expert Professor Shaun Hendy presented one model of the Delta variant's impact that projected up to 7000 deaths a year unless full vaccination comfortably exceeded 80 per cent of those aged five years and over.
But doesn't scaring people work? After all, cigarettes come in packets featuring Saw franchise-level horror; Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency ran TV ads that depicted car crashes; and parents routinely try to scare their kids straight ("Krampus will thrash you with a birch stick unless you behave!").
If reference to the Waka Kotahi advertising didn't ring any bells, that's because the campaign started in the mid-90s and has more recently been replaced by the less-graphic "Bloody Legend" and "Ghost Chips" campaigns. If fear works, why stop using it?
For public health promotion and other education campaigns, it makes sense to change your approach occasionally. We become habituated to the form and content of advertising after a while, and therefore ads become less effective. We develop a certain level of herd immunity, if you will. We perk up at the novelty of a new ad series. How we do that can also backfire, but I'll get back to that.
We know fear is an emotion with a purpose. It tells us there's something imminent to get the heck away from as fast as possible. In a pandemic, that means hightailing it away from microbes.
Fear also gives you the tools you need to do so. An increased heart rate pushes blood to your running muscles, shutting down such things as digestion to free up energy and putting a lid on the brain's frontal lobes – the bits that are normally helpful in making decisions, but that can be a liability when you should just be legging it.
Fear is a "hot" emotion with a relatively short half-life. If you didn't escape the jaws of a sabretooth in the first few minutes, you were tucker, anyway. So, maybe "fear appeals" work best with immediate threats?
Appeals to fear have been around a long time and, as a result, there has been a long track record of research into how effective they are. When we have enough individual research studies, we can take advantage of their combined power to see what the average effect of something (such as appeals to fear) is and, handily, what might increase or decrease that effectiveness.
In the case of appeals to fear, the answer is that they can work very effectively, indeed. When a fear appeal is strong, people feel more frightened. They perceive the threat to be both more serious and more likely to affect them.
But not always. Freaking people out about an imminent threat can be highly motivating, but motivating to do what?
Fear appeals work best when paired with clear, simple guidance on how to mitigate the threat. This makes people feel as though they can effectively do something. Although those 90s Waka Kotahi ads showed the threat, the message "don't drink and drive" is rather less specific than the ones we see in "bloody legend" – that role play on what to do when someone has had a few too many.
Even when fear appeals are accompanied by ways to act, they may not always have the desired effect. There is a really thin line in crafting these appeals to be persuasive.
When it comes to those drink-driving ads, people might feel guilty initially (say, those who know they've driven a vehicle after having a few drinks), but then feel resentful for being made to feel guilty, so switch TV channels. They might also feel angry and display psychological "reactance" or an attitude of "screw you for telling me what I've got to do, so I'm going to do the opposite".
My advice to the Government? Use scares only if other things aren't working.
• Marc Wilson is a professor and associate dean at Victoria University of Wellington's School of Psychology