Does scaring people work when it comes to health messages? Communication researcher explains how it went wrong during the COVID-19 pandemic
In the recent movie “Don’t Look Up”, two astronomers learn that a comet is about to collide with Earth and destroy human civilization. When they try to sound the alarm, all sorts of obstacles stand in their way. Ultimately, well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
The film is fiction, of course, but the situation illuminates a facet of reality: when people try to warn others of impending danger, success is not guaranteed.
Warning messages travel under a variety of names, including fear appeals, threat appeals, and risk communication. As a communication scientist who has studied warning messages for 40 years, I have given much thought to the question of when fear appeals are heeded and when they are not – a consideration that has no doubt doubt has been on the minds of many public health officials around the world. Covid19 pandemic.
COVID-19: A “biological comet”
Scare appeals are obviously not limited to comets. Warnings about the undesirable consequences of smoking, texting while driving, and drinking alcohol during pregnancy can be seen as fear appeals. The same goes for food recalls, evacuation warnings, and messages that encourage vaccination against influenza, polio, and COVID-19.
Extensive reviews of the research literature, called meta-analyses, reveal that fear appeals work for most people most of the time.
And yet, consider where society stands today. Over the past two years, people around the world have been told they are at risk of contracting a life-threatening disease – a kind of biological comet – and that various health-protective behaviors, such as social distancing, wearing masks and vaccination can save lives. Yet many people are forgoing social distancing, rejecting masking recommendations and continuing to refuse a vaccine that will protect them. Why?
How Fear Appeals Fail – Sometimes
Understanding when fear works and when it doesn’t requires some knowledge of what it is and how it works. Fear appeals have two distinct parts. The first part describes the danger. The second describes how to mitigate the danger.
If done well, the first part frightens the recipients of the message and the second appeases them. When a person hears or reads a call to fear from beginning to end, the fear looks like an inverted U: it rises and then falls.
Research I conducted with my colleagues at Penn State shows that escalation and de-escalation of fear must occur for messaging to be effective. Without the rise and fall of fear, the message will fail. So what could interfere with this process?
Much depends on what people think of the supposed threat. If the problem is not perceived as serious, there is no reason to be afraid, no need to pay attention to the recommended solution and no need to protect oneself.
From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some message sources downplayed the threat. President Trump, for example, compared the new coronavirus to another disease that society has learned to deal with. “It’s a flu. It’s like a flu,” Trump said. Statements like these have undermined efforts to raise awareness of the true risks of COVID-19.
And even a serious threat must be considered relevant or it is unlikely to elicit strong emotion. At the start of the pandemic, some regions were hit hard by the virus while others experienced relatively low infection rates. People living in these areas with low case numbers often had only indirect information about the pandemic, often through social media. And social media contained a lot of misinformation.
Amazingly, just 12 people were responsible for two-thirds of vaccine misinformation on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician with 3.6 million followers, notoriously and incorrectly stated, “The same number of people who died in 2020 who, on average, died in previous years. That simply wouldn’t be the case if we had a deadly pandemic. This widespread denial of the true impact of the virus has led many to conclude that the pandemic is not a problem for them or anyone else.
Then there is the question of what can be done against the threat.
Health experts argue — based on a large amount of data and scientific evidence — that COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective. When individuals believe the remedy is effective, fear is diminished and the likelihood of action is increased. But beliefs about the effectiveness of vaccines have been weakened by claims that the vaccine is too new and unproven or that its production has been rushed.
Finally, a key consideration is whether people can actually find the solution. Social distancing necessitated a shift to remote work and school, placing a huge burden on families that fell disproportionately on women. Meanwhile, high-quality masks were initially expensive and hard to locate in a sea of knockoffs.
Just a year ago, at the start of 2021, vaccines were not available in many places. And now, after navigating nearly two years of challenges to adapt recommended solutions, there is a real danger that pandemic fatigue will reduce motivation to follow safety guidelines.
Undermine the messenger
Fear appeals can also be thwarted more generally. For example, by attributing nefarious motives to government and public health officials, those who spread misinformation and conspiracy theories can cause others to reject all information from these sources.
As I noted above, research shows that fear appeals are persuasive for most people most of the time. However, the studies that support this conclusion are mostly experiments in which fear appeals are compared to a weak message or no message at all. In other words, these comparisons bear no resemblance to the reality surrounding COVID-19.
Vaccine messaging takes place in a highly competitive messaging environment – an environment that involves active efforts to undermine the defense of public health. Inconsistent and contradictory messages produced by health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have undermined the effectiveness of fear appeals. The fact that scientific knowledge evolves and always has a certain degree of uncertainty explains why health agencies have changed – and continue to change – their messages. Unfortunately, this inconsistency also undermines the impact of health messages on an audience that wants simple, consistent answers.
And just like in “Don’t Look Up”, various groups and individuals have prioritized their own short-term gains over genuine global danger. These collective efforts have left large swaths of the population unconcerned or demotivated by a genuine global threat. This helps explain why the United States has far more COVID-19 deaths than other wealthy countries. The parallels between film and reality are more than a little chilling.
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