Threatening communication: A qualitative study of fear appeal effectiveness beliefs among intervention developers, policymakers, politicians, scientists, and advertising professionals

Gjalt‐Jorn Y. Peters, Robert A. C. Ruiter, Gerjo Kok
Published Online:
20 Sep 2013
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 49 Issue 2

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Threatening communication is a widely applied method in behavior change interventions, which at the same time has been heavily criticized in the psychological literature. The current paper describes a study of the reasons for this persistent wide application of threatening communication. We conducted qualitative interviews with 33 key actors in behavior change intervention development in The Netherlands. Specifically, we interviewed intervention developers, policymakers, politicians, scientists, and advertising professionals. The interviews were transcribed and subsequently coded using NVivo. We found that participants most closely involved with the actual intervention development were generally convinced that threatening information was to be prevented, but often did not understand the exact processes involved. They were often under the impression that rather than a potent efficacy enhancing element, a behavioral suggestion would suffice to prevent threatening communication from backfiring. As participants were further removed from the actual intervention development, they generally tended to be more in favor of threatening communication. The main reasons for use of threatening information were to attract attention or prompt self‐reflection through confrontation, because target population members were assumed to like threatening information and respond rationally to increased risk perceptions by changing their behavior, or simply because no alternatives were available. In addition, intervention developers frequently had to deal with supervisors or funders who preferred threatening communication. Thus, when communicating with practitioners, it seems fruitful to provide them with a toolbox of evidence‐based behavior change methods that promote adaptive, rather than maladaptive, behavior; to promote basing interventions on the most relevant behavioral determinants as identified by determinant analyses; and to equip intervention developers with the tools to persuade other key stakeholders that fear is a bad counselor.

© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Psychology published by John Wiley © Sons Ltd on behalf of International Union of Psychological Science