Scott Geller
Can we scare people into working safe?

One example that comes to mind indicates that fear appeals fail to have a lasting effect. Remember the program “Scared Straight?” Teenagers who have broken the law spend a day in a prison where tough, “in-your-face” inmates give them a taste of prison reality in an attempt to “scare them straight.”

Most of these teens are alarmed and horrified by their prison experience. But when they return to their neighborhoods and peer groups, many (if not most) continue their destructive and/or illegal behavior patterns. Why?

To be effective, the “scared straight” tactic must do more than intimidate. There are actually three keys to success. First, a realistic scare tactic tells an audience they need to do something to avoid a negative consequence. Second, the message must demonstrate a straightforward behavioral strategy for avoiding that negative outcome.

And third, the audience must be convinced they can apply this strategy successfully.

I described these three beliefs in my May, 2001, column in ISHN:

  • Being motivated to perform in a desired way comes from the belief that the consequences make the effort worthwhile. This is called outcome expectancy.

  • Believing that a particular strategy or technique will actually produce that desired outcome is called response efficacy.

  • Finally, believing that you can perform this procedure or technique — having self-confidence and a can-do attitude — is called self-efficacy. The “scared straight” tactic usually only influences one of these three factors — the outcome expectancy belief that it’s worthwhile to avoid the realities of prison. Juveniles who failed to change didn’t receive strategies (response efficacy) they believed they could actually perform effectively (self-efficacy) in order to avoid that “reality” consequence that alarmed and scared them.

Leveraging the fear factor

A recent meta-analysis of 98 different studies of fear appeals shows quite conclusively that scare tactics work well when they also include efficacy messages. Make sure any fear appeals you use for safety’s sake touch on all three beliefs I cited above. Remember, personal testimonies of employees discussing their injuries and “near misses” must do more than convince co-workers there’s a risk in their work space. Scare stories must do more than arouse fear or anxiety. To be effective, they must offer convincing strategies to avoid the injury, and they must assure audiences they have the time, skills, and tools to apply injury-prevention procedures.

It’s also important to cultivate the kind of workplace culture that allows employees to talk openly about their experiences, because collective statistics don’t scare us nearly as much as an individual case study (as I discussed much earlier in an August, 1994, ISHN article on risk perception). This conclusion is backed by the rigorous risk perception research of Paul Slovic, Peter Sandman, and colleagues.

A culture of reinforcement

Another key to successfully using fear-based safety tactics also relates to your workplace culture. It’s difficult to scare people into performing a certain safe behavior when it’s easy to see that most everyone else is not practicing the desired behavior. The failure of scare tactics to increase safety belt usage in the 1970s, as reported in a classic field study by Leon Robertson and colleagues, brings this point home.

Six different safety belt messages — four using a scare tactic (such as the testimony of a teenage girl whose face was disfigured in a crash because she was not wearing a safety belt) — were shown 943 times over a nine-month period to 6,400 homes wired to Cable System A in a community with two cable systems. This amounted to an average exposure of two to three presentations per person every week. The 7,400 homes on Cable System B received no public service announcement about safety belts.

The results were disappointing. Daily field observations that used license plates to track study participants (who were unaware of the test) showed the mean safety-belt use among male and female drivers was 8.4 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively, for the group receiving the safety messages, and 8.2 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively, for the control group.

What was the problem? In this case, the scare tactics did indeed touch on all three of those beliefs needed to bring about a change in behavior. The ugly scar on the young girl’s face provided the negative consequence to be avoided, and the message implied that anyone had the skill to adopt the strategy necessary to avoid this outcome — by simply buckling up.

It’s my guess that the “culture” of the times was a critical factor. Readers who were driving in 1974 realize a few key differences between then and now. First, vehicles in those days frequently had only lap belts, which do not hold heads back from slamming into windshields. More importantly, it was once common to hear of individuals whose lives were saved because they were not buckled up. “Uncle Joe was thrown clear of the crash and luckily did not burn in the fire.”

Plus, use of safety belts was very low in the 1970s. Today it’s natural to see people buckled up, but in those days safety-belt use was the exception, not the rule.

Today, I think that safety belt scare message would work. Scare tactics can work. But if you want to use them to increase safety-related behaviors, remember the importance of your workplace culture in promoting and reinforcing the message. And remember: you need to do more than simply scare people. Give them procedures to avoid the scary negative consequence, and convince them that they have the skills and time to use those procedures.

Sidebar: Want to use scare tactics?

  • A realistic scare tells workers they need to do something to avoid an unwanted consequence, such as an injury.

  • Give workers a straightforward strategy to avoid that scary consequence.

  • Convince them that they can apply it successfully.

  • Cultivate a culture that encourages employees to discuss their injuries and near misses —personal testimony is more powerful than statistics.

  • Get everyone on the same page — even motivated people who have the training and confidence to follow safety practices often won't do it if they see most of their co-workers failing to work safety.