From: Center for the Advancement of Health

Health Promotion: Can Scare Tactics Work?

Health promotion campaigns that play on fear may be promoting counter-productive effects if they aren't designed correctly, warns a team of researchers who field tested one such campaign.

Researchers at Michigan State University found that the key to ensuring successful scare tactic campaigns is to give individuals specific information about the effectiveness of a recommended action as well as clear information on how to actually do what is recommended.

If no such information is given about a desired health behavior change, then scare tactic campaigns may cause people to deny they're at risk for experiencing health hazards, says Kim Witte, PhD, and her colleagues in the October Health Education & Behavior.

"Fear appeal campaigns can produce multiple outcomes, some of which interfere with desired behavior changes," they write, and while some such campaigns do persuade people that they face a significant threat, if not done correctly they also promote denial or avoidance of the issue, which prevents people from taking action to reduce their risk.

Witte and her colleagues tested the effectiveness of a fear campaign designed to reduce the risk of genital warts caused by human papilloma virus (HPV) -- the number one sexually transmitted disease on many college campuses.

About half of their sample of 219 college women received a brochure on HPV with vivid, personalized language describing the consequences of infection. They also completed questionnaires designed to assess their fear of HPV, if they believed condoms could reduce their risk, and the extent to which they discounted the HPV threat.

Overall, Witte and her colleagues found that only women who felt threatened by HPV were motivated to protect themselves against the disease. Those who did not feel threatened failed to respond "in either positive or negative ways to the campaign -- they simply ignored it" and made no changes in attitudes or behavior.

The research team also found that the fear-based campaign 'appeared' to fail because there was no difference in attitudes toward HPV risk or change in behavior between the women who received the fear literature and those who did not. But, when they looked more closely, they found that women who strongly believed they could lower their risk of HPV were more likely to change their behavior than those who did not believe they could modify their risk.

The findings, they say, suggest that scare tactics can be effective because fear motivates individuals into action, but they only work when people believe they are able to do something that really averts a threat. The researchers caution that if it is impossible to address negative beliefs about the recommended remedies, such as condom usage, then designers of public health campaigns should avoid the use of fear appeals.

Health Education & Behavior, a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), publishes research on critical health issues for professionals in the implementation and administration of public health information programs. SOPHE is an international, non-profit professional organization that promotes the health of all people through education. For additional information about SOPHE, contact Elaine Auld: (202) 408-9804.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health http://www.cfah.org. For information about the Center, contact Richard Hebert rhebert@cfah.org.

This article comes from Science Blog. Copyright 2004