There may be a good, scientific reason for why presidential candidates tell voters, “My opponent will destroy the economy,” or anti-tobacco campaigns market that “smoking will kill you,” according to a new study. Research conducted by the American Psychological Association reveals how fear can be used to influence attitudes and behaviors, especially among women. Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, support the ongoing debate over whether fear tactics are successful enough to make someone change their mind or act a certain way.

"These appeals are effective at changing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors," said the study’s co-author Dolores Albarracin, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, in a press release. "Presenting a fear appeal more than doubles the probability of change relative to not presenting anything or presenting a low-fear appeal."

For the study, researchers looked at over 50 years of data from 127 different studies with over 27,000 participants. They found fear was the most influential when the target audience was mostly women; when the message was a one-time only recommendation; and when the fear tactic also provided a way to avoid a threat. For example, in one of the studies when they instilled fear by telling participants that contracting a sexually transmitted disease would negatively impact future relationships, participants were more likely to wear a condom if the warning was followed up with a recommendation to avoid the threat.  

Why has fear proven to be so effective time and again? Albarracin and her colleagues looked at studies from 1962 to the present, and found that it had little to do with the time period. Rather, when humans sensed danger, evoked from an anti-smoking campaign threatening death from smoking a cigarette, their brains reacted instantly by sending signals through the nervous system. Blood pumped to muscle groups necessary for action, which in turn slowed the brain’s ability to make a clear decision regarding how to respond to the perceived threat. In other words, a fight-or-flight response was observed.

Studies performed in the late 1980s revealed a difference in the sexes when it came to fear, which may explain why women responded better to it than men. According to Psychology Today, this relates to society’s gender roles; it’s more acceptable for women to respond to fear with emotion, while men are raised associating fear with helplessness, which reduces their ability to act and control the situation. Of course, this doesn’t represent a one-size-fits-all upbringing, but society has shaped the way men and women respond to emotion, and in turn changes the way fear influences their behavior. Because women have a more acute response to fear, they have less time to think, or do something, about the changes in their behavior.

Albarracin explained that fear works in a majority of circumstances, and if it doesn’t work, it still won’t backfire and lead to unintended consequences. For example, when an audience was warned smoking would kill, it didn’t actively seek out cigarettes or pick up the habit in response to the fear.

“Fear appeals should not be seen as a panacea because the effect is still small,” Albarracin said. “Still, there is no data indicating that audiences will be worse off from receiving fear appeals in any condition. More elaborate strategies, such as training people on the skills they will need to succeed in changing behavior, will likely be more effective in most contexts.”

Source: Tannenbaum M, Wilson K, Abarracin D, et al. Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories. Psychological Bulletin.