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Reactions to threatening health messages

Threatening health messages that focus on severity are popular, but frequently have no effect or even a counterproductive effect on behaviour change. This paradox (i.e. wide application despite low effectiveness) may be partly explained by the intuitive appeal of threatening communication: it may be hard to predict the defensive reactions occurring in response to fear appeals. Researchers  examined this hypothesis by using two studies by Brown and colleagues, which provide evidence that threatening health messages in the form of distressing imagery in anti-smoking and anti-alcohol campaigns cause defensive reactions.

The authors simulated both Brown et al. experiments, asking participants to estimate the reactions of the original study subjects to the threatening health information (n = 93). Afterwards, the authors presented the actual original study outcomes. One week later, they assessed whether this knowledge of the actual study outcomes helped participants to more successfully estimate the effectiveness of the threatening health information (n = 72).

Results showed that participants were initially convinced of the effectiveness of threatening health messages and were unable to anticipate the defensive reactions that in fact occurred. Furthermore, these estimates did not improve after participants had been explained the dynamics of threatening communication as well as what the effects of the threatening communication had been in reality.

These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the effectiveness of threatening health messages is intuitively appealing. What is more, providing empirical evidence against the use of threatening health messages has very little effect on this intuitive appeal.

Source: Reactions to threatening health messages. ten Hoor GA; Peters GJ; Kalagi J; de Groot L; Grootjans K; Huschens A; Kohninger C; et al. BMC Public Health. Published early online 21 November 2012

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