In the mid 1960’s, Howard Leventhal, a social psychologist from Yale University, USA, invited a group of 30 senior students to participate in what they thought was an experiment on a public health brochure evaluation. The tetanus pamphlet, as it was called, was to be evaluated for its persuasiveness in communicating the dangers of tetanus and the importance of inoculation.
To that effect, the students read the pamphlet, carefully analysed its contents and filled out the evaluation report. When they were done they handed it to the experimenter and went on their merry way thinking the experiment was over. In reality, though, the experiment had just begun.
What the Participants Did Not Know
While Leventhal really was trying to measure the persuasiveness of the pamphlet, his measure of effectiveness was not how persuasive the participants thought or said it was but how it actually affected their behaviour. He wanted to see how many of the participants would subsequently get vaccinated. To make things interesting, he gave different students different pamphlets.
Those in the ‘high fear’ group received booklets with powerful language describing the risks of contracting tetanus and vividly frightening images to show what it did to people. For those in the low fear group, the experimenters toned down the language and took out the distressing images.
Leventhal wanted to see if higher fear levels in the pamphlet would lead to a higher number of participants seeking inoculation.
It did not.
After making regular checks with the medical centre for over a month, Leventhal found that only one person out of the whole group had subsequently got the vaccination. Apart from scaring the living day lights out of the participants, the fear appeal, and especially the high fear appeal, did nothing to persuade the participants to seek vaccination.
Why Did the Fear Fail To Persuade?
Leventhal could not work out why this had happened. Had the participants not understood the dangers of tetanus? Had they not understood the importance of being vaccinated?
Leventhal analysed their evaluation reports to see if this was the case. To his surprise, the reports not only showed the students clearly understood the nature and seriousness of tetanus but also the importance of being vaccinated. What was more, the reports revealed that most students intended to get vaccinated. Despite the good intentions, however, only one of the participants followed through with their plans.
By any measure the pamphlet was a complete failure.
Then Leventhal tried including specific instructions on how to deal with the threat of tetanus. He included a map of the university medical centre and listed the times the centre provided the free tetanus shots.
This time the number of participants getting vaccinated rose from the measly 3.3% to an impressive 33% – a 10 fold increase in persuasive muscle.
The Trick to Using Fear in Persuasion
Leventhal concluded that for messages using fear appeals to be persuasive, there must be specific, clear and explicitly listed steps the audience can take to resolve the presented threat. Otherwise the fear will paralyse the audience and they will simply choose denial to deal with their dilemma.
If you are a public health marketer, for example, rather than simply telling your target market the dangers of a certain disease, e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or the dangers of a certain activity, e.g. smoking, overeating, drug abuse or alcohol abuse, also list the specific steps they can take to overcome their problem. Otherwise you will just be scaring their pants off with nothing to show for it.
Remember, fear alone does not persuade, it paralyses.