Why accentuate the negative?
Fear appeals work.
That’s according to 100 studies and 50 years of research on fear appeals reviewed by researchers Kim Witte and Mike Allen.
Fear appeals — also known as scare tactics, shock tactics, negative messages, risk communications, threats and avoidance benefits — have a high “response efficacy,” researchers say.
In other words, a threat may be more likely to motivate behavior than a promise.
We’ve used fear appeals for decades.
Preachers, teachers, communicators and others have used fear appeals since antiquity to convince people to:
- Apply sunscreen
- Avoid drugs and alcohol
- Conduct breast self-exams
- Drive safely
- Duck and cover
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Learn self-defense techniques
- Not drink and drive
- Stop smoking
- Use condoms
- Wear seatbelts
You can use fear appeals in your persuasive messages, too, to get your readers to do everything from getting heart scans to buying long-term-care insurance to contributing to their 401(k) plans.
Consequences more powerful than benefits.
Appeals can be positive: make money, save money, save time. But sometimes negative appeals work best.
“People spend 19 times the time, effort and expense to solve a pain than to reap a benefit.”
— Chris Stiehl, “The Listening Coach”
In one extended parallel study, for instance, researchers tested two messages:
- Negative: By failing to perform breast self-examinations, you’ll be less likely to discover cancer in its early stages, so treatment will be less likely to work.
- Positive: By performing breast self-examinations, you’ll be more likely to detect breast cancer in its early stages, when it’s more treatable.
The negative version was nearly 20% more effective than the positive one at getting women to conduct breast self-exams.
So forget what your mother told you: If you can’t think of anything nice to say, say something negative. Your campaign may be more powerful.
Symptoms more powerful than cures.
Writing about symptoms may be the holy grail for health communication, according to a study by MedTrack Alert and the Interactive Media Services Program at Miami University in Ohio.
Describing the symptoms of a disease, according to the study, provides a “double hit” of:
- Convincing customers to comply with action recommendations such as using a product or service
- Getting people to pass the messages along through word of mouth
In fact, focusing on symptoms is more effective than focusing on:
- Gaining better control over a condition
- Experiencing a positive outcome
- Getting good results
- Saving money with a discount coupon
- Showing that the cure is easy to use
- Explaining how a drug works
“The findings here suggest that an advertisement that calls attention to the symptoms … has the most potential to be acted upon,” the researchers say.
Negative fake news gains traction.
Did Stanley Kubrick fake the moon landings? Was President Obama holding a rocket launcher in a car with an ISIS leader? Does your favorite shampoo cause hair loss?
No, no and probably not, according to Snopes’ “25 Hottest Urban Legends.”
So what makes bad news — even when it’s fake news — gain such traction?
It’s evolutionary, writes Matthew Hutson in The Atlantic. The more likely a message is to help us survive a threat (or find a mate), the more likely we are to believe it, remember it and share it.
Fear appeals are more believable. In one study, subjects ranked the sources of negative messages (leeches clinging to your feet, software frying your hard drive, meat turning bitter on the stove) as much as 287% more knowledgeable than messages about the same subjects but with neutral themes. (Pascal Boyer & Nora Parren, “Threat-Related Information Suggests Competence,” PLOS One, June 2015)
Fear appeals are more memorable. In another study, subjects read an urban legend, rewrote it from memory and passed it onto the next person in a sequence like the game of telephone.
At the end of the chain, subjects remembered the legends that would help them survive (serial killers and spiders) or rise socially (cybersex) much better than the control information. (Joseph M. Stubbersfield, Jamshid J. Tehrani & Emma G. Flynn, “Serial Killers, Spiders and Cybersex,” British Journal of Psychology, May 2015)
Fear appeals get shared. When researchers analyzed 220 urban legends, they found that the stories were much more likely to mention threats than benefits. That makes sense: Evolutionarily, believing in a fake hazard is less harmful than disregarding a real one.
And subjects found statements about topics ranging from German shepherds to LASIK surgery more believable when they mentioned risks, like mauling or double vision. (Daniel M. T. Fessler, Anne C. Pisor & Carlos David Navarrete, “Negatively-Biased Credulity and the Cultural Evolution of Beliefs,” PLOS One, April 2014)
Accentuate the negative.
Fear appeals work for getting people to do everything from duck and cover to avoid texting while driving.
How can you accentuate the negative in your next campaign?
Sources: Kim Witte and Mike Allen, “A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeals: Implications for Effective Public Health Campaigns,” Health Education & Behavior, vol. 27, no. 5, October 2000
Aaron Baar, “Drugmakers Should Focus On Symptoms, Study Finds,” Marketing Daily, Nov. 8, 2007
Robert A. Ruiter, Bas Verplanken and Gerdien van Eersel, “Strengthening the Persuasive Impact of Fear Appeals: The Role of Action Framing,” The Journal of Social Psychology, June 2003
Matthew Hutson, “Strange Origins of Urban Legends,” The Atlantic, Dec. 8, 2015