A short while ago there was a shocking advert on British TV that used slow motion to illustrate the bloody, crunching effects of a car crash. The driver had been drinking. Using these kind of scare tactics for anti drink-driving and other health issues makes intuitive sense. The campaigners want to grab your attention and demonstrate the seriousness of the consequences if their message is not heeded. However, a new study makes the surprising finding that for a portion of the population, scare tactics can back-fire, actually undermining a message’s efficacy.
Steffen Nestler and Boris Egloff had 297 participants, 229 of them female, average age 35, read one of two versions of a fictional news report from a professional medical journal. The report referred to a study showing links between caffeine consumption and a fictional gastro-intestinal disease ‘Xyelinenteritis’. One version was extra-scary, highlighting a link between Xyelinenteritis and cancer and saying that the participant’s age group was particularly vulnerable. The other version was lower-key and lacked these two details. Both versions of the article concluded by recommending that readers reduce their caffeine consumption.
Before gauging the participants’ reaction to the article and its advice, the researchers tested them on a measure of ‘cognitive avoidance’. People who score highly on this personality dimension respond to threats with avoidance tactics such as distracting themselves, denying the threat or persuading themselves that they aren’t vulnerable.
The key finding is that participants who scored high on cognitive avoidance actually rated the threat from Xyelinenteritis as less severe after reading the scary version of the report compared with the low-key version. Moreover, after reading the scary version, they were less impressed by the advice to reduce caffeine consumption and less likely to say that they planned to reduce their caffeine intake.
On the other hand, highly cognitive avoidant participants were more responsive to the low-key report than were the low cognitive avoidant participants. In other words, for people who are cognitively avoidant, scary health messages can actually back-fire.
‘Practically, our results suggest that instead of giving all individuals the same threat communications, messages should be given that are concordant with their individual characteristics,’ Nestler and Egloff said. ‘Thus, the present findings are in line with the growing literature on tailoring intentions to individual characteristics, and they highlight the role of individual differences when scary messages are used.’
Nestler, S., & Egloff, B. (2010). When scary messages backfire: Influence of dispositional cognitive avoidance on the effectiveness of threat communications Journal of Research in Personality, 44 (1), 137-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2009.10.007