By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
If the panoply of strategies to persuade were a dating pool, then the fear appeal would definitely be the "bad boy," or "bad girl." By that I mean, attractive, a little shady, and potentially dangerous. The tactic of motivating your target audience by instilling and then alleviating some kind of fear is attractive because it often works, shady because it is seen as appealing to the lowest among human motivators, and dangerous because it might backfire if the fear is too strong or too difficult to resolve. In legal persuasion, that mixed bag of effects has understandably led some litigators to avoid it, thinking, "I'd rather persuade based on facts and evidence, and not on fear." Other trial lawyers, however, have run in the opposite direction. The plaintiff bar, for example, has staked a claim on fear as a central motivator. And it probably doesn't help with the bad boy/girl reputation that this approach sounds like something slithering and cold: "The Reptile."
Based on the research, the effectiveness, at least, of fear as a strategy is less controversial. The studies show that fear is a strategy that you can typically bank on. In one of the largest recent studies on the topic (Tannenbaum et al., 2015), researchers conducted a meta-analysis of a total of 127 studies involving a whopping 27,372 research subjects examining the effects of fear appeals. The results? Including a fear appeal in your message works. "Overall, we conclude that (a) fear appears are effective at positively influencing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors; (b) there are very few circumstances under which they are not effective; and (c) there are no identified circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes." Does that make the fear appeal the right kind of persuasive strategy -- the kind you would take home to mother? The answer is that it still depends on how it is used. A more recent research article (Meczkowski & Dillard, 2017) considered many different theoretical accounts for why fear works. There is some theoretical nuance there, but the advice, what the authors call the "gold standard," for dealing with fear appeals, remains relatively consistent. In this post, I will take a look at those factors that cause the fear appeal to work most effectively.