Remember the public service ad that used to scare people away from using illegal drugs? It showed an egg, a frying pan, and then the egg frying in the pan. “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” was the accompanying voice-over.

Someone actually thought this fear appeal would work and convinced others to spend time and money to show it over and over. Yet the message did not establish a clear threat, offer a useful solution or explain the vulnerability of the target audience.

No wonder a fried egg and two strips of bacon have been printed on t-shirts and posters, along with the statement, “This is your brain with a side of bacon.”

Fear factors

Fear appeals can be powerful vehicles for conveying a safety or health message, but we need to understand what makes these messages effective. That’s what I want to talk about in this article.

Let’s consider nine factors that impact the effectiveness of fear-based safety and health messages. Keep in mind, some of these you can manipulate, and some you can do little about.

1 Be direct. An effective scare tactic must convince the audience that particular negative consequences can occur if certain behaviors are not performed. The more fear aroused, the more potential motivation to comply with the message. The threat must be presented in clear, straightforward terms.

2 Get real. Your audience needs evidence that they are vulnerable to the threat. When an audience can visualize the negative consequences happening to them, personal apprehension is activated and the individual is receptive to learning strategies for avoiding the feared consequence. Relevant case studies work better than statistics to stimulate this fear emotion.

3 Does it work? Your scare message must tap into response-efficacy — the belief that recommended solutions to preventing or avoiding the threat work. This belief is enhanced when you can provide examples of how your recommendations actually remove the threat of injury.

4 Is it convenient? You need to tap into self-efficacy, too. Your audience needs to believe it possesses the ability to follow the message recommendations.

I know a safety leader who exhibits a pair of safety glasses with a cracked lens and a sign with the owner’s name and department. He claims this demonstration motivated more consistent use of safety glasses than any other strategy he had previously tried. This simple display reminded viewers of a serious threat that was relevant to them and showed an action strategy that was visibly effective and easy to perform.

5 Don’t force it. There is convincing evidence that volunteers respond differently to fear appeals than non-volunteers. People who feel compelled to listen to a safety or health message (as when involuntarily attending a safety class or watching a TV commercial) are much less affected by high fear messages than people who perceive that the message wasn’t forced on them.

The difference here can be subtle. For example, a safety leader who uses a strong fear appeal may or may not get compliance, depending on who initiated the conversation. If the employee asks for advice, personal choice is evident and a fear appeal is likely to work. But the safety professional who comes on strong to an audience that feels required or obliged to listen may cause reactionary resistance to comply with the recommendations.

6 What’s your audience’s age? Research has demonstrated what seems like common sense: Fear appeals are more effective for older audiences. Perceived vulnerability to health and safety threats increases directly with age. Younger people generally feel that unintentional injury, death and disease happen to elders or perhaps to other younger people. This age factor is one reason televised public service announcements using fear appeals to reduce drug or alcohol abuse are not very influential. They target young people who have perceptions of invulnerability and thus are unlikely to be affected by a fear appeal.

7 Who’s anxious? Some people are naturally more tense or generally nervous than others, as assessed by psychological measures of trait anxiety. People scoring high on these anxiety scales are no more influenced by high fear than low fear appeals. In contrast, those who are less “anxious by nature” are more persuaded by high than low fear messages.

This distinction is not very practical, since we can’t readily screen an audience for trait anxiety and then customize a health or safety message accordingly. Instead, assume the high fear appeal will usually work best because most people do not possess severe amounts of trait anxiety. Just realize that those relatively few who are generally anxious may not respond favorably to a high fear message.

8 Are they ready? Substantial research has shown that receptivity to a message advocating behavior change depends upon an individual’s stage of readiness for change. Five stages have been identified: 1) precontemplation, 2) contemplation, 3) preparation, 4) action, and 5) maintenance.

People at Stages 2 and 3 are most likely to be influenced by a fear appeal, because they’ve been considering the target behavior (contemplation stage) or have actively been getting themselves ready for the behavior change (preparation stage). The same message will have the least influence on those who have never considered performing the target behavior (precontemplation stage). And for those individuals in Stages 4 and 5 (action and maintenance), the fear appeal cannot provoke behavior change because they are already performing the desired response. For these individuals, your fear appeal could serve a useful supportive function, increasing the likelihood the target behavior will continue.

9 What’s the cost? We’re not talking about money, but any negative consequences associated with complying with the recommendation that accompanies a fear appeal. Any physical discomfort and lost time associated with behavior recommended in a safety message will certainly influence the amount of compliance.

Design the action component of your message with “response cost” in mind. For example, your message could include strategies for making PPE more comfortable and convenient, or it could explain how the amount of time and effort required to conduct a behavioral or environmental audit is less than one might think at first.

Sidebar: Framing the fear appeal

What kind of threat is most motivating — one that emphasizes the benefits of a certain safety or health practice, or one that focuses on the costs of not complying with recommended behaviors? The best answer to this question is “it depends.”

Limited research in this area has targeted public health appeals and indicates that “gain framing” (emphasizing the benefits) works best for prevention behaviors. “Loss framing” (focusing on negative consequences) seems to be more influential for messages intended to motivate detection behaviors.

For example, audiences were more likely to use sunscreen consistently when the fear appeal focused on positive consequences of this prevention behavior. But women were more likely to perform regular breast self-exams or obtain a yearly mammography screening when the health message emphasized the possible negative consequences of not following the recommended detection behaviors.

Generalizing this public health research to safety, we might presume that attempts to motivate prevention behaviors such as wearing PPE, locking out power sources, and using fall protection should stress the positive consequences achieved by compliance.

It seems environmental and behavioral audits could be considered detection behaviors. If so, loss framing would work better to motivate and maintain participation in an observation and feedback process.

These extrapolations from public health to workplace safety-related behaviors are strained. More research is needed. At this point, my recommendation is to use both gain framing and loss framing when specifying the consequences of your safety-related instructions.

Just be sure to specify consequences — the lost opportunities when not complying and/or the gained opportunities when performing the recommended behavior.