Using scare tactics: does it work?

Using Scare Tactics: Does It Work? Download PDF

There is no get­ting around the fact that cli­mate change is scary. For people who live in coun­tries where the envir­on­mental con­di­tions are already chal­len­ging, and are get­ting worse, fear of the effects of cli­mate change is a very imme­diate concern.

But for cit­izens of most developed coun­tries, cli­mate change still rep­res­ents a future threat. Many early cli­mate change com­mu­nic­a­tion strategies by NGOs and gov­ern­ment agen­cies drew the reas­on­able con­clu­sion that because the threat of cli­mate change was per­ceived as some­thing to worry about in the future, increasing the ‘fear factor’ might be a good way of get­ting people to be more concerned.

This approach was not com­pletely mis­guided – studies have found that if the ‘psy­cho­lo­gical dis­tance’ between an indi­vidual and the impacts of cli­mate change is reduced (for example, because they exper­i­ence a flooding event that is rep­res­ent­ative of the sort of impacts cli­mate change will bring), they are more likely to express con­cern over cli­mate change and show a greater will­ing­ness to save energy (Spence, Poortinga, Butler & Pidgeon, 2011). So linking indi­vidual exper­i­ences with cli­mate change is one way of increasing the chance that people will want to do some­thing about it.

There is also no merit in ‘dumbing down’ the sci­entific evid­ence that the impacts of cli­mate change are likely to be severe, and that some of these impacts are now almost cer­tainly unavoid­able. Accepting that cli­mate change is hap­pening, and will cause sig­ni­ficant prob­lems for human and nat­ural sys­tems is a scary pro­spect. But research has shown that delib­erate attempts to instil fear or guilt in people carry a con­sid­er­able risk of backfiring.

Studies on ‘fear appeals’ show the poten­tial for fear to change atti­tudes or verbal expres­sions of con­cern, but often not actions or beha­viour. The impact of fear appeals is con­text – and audi­ence – spe­cific. For those who do not yet realise the poten­tially ‘scary’ aspects of cli­mate change, people need to first exper­i­ence them­selves as vul­ner­able to the risks in some way in order to feel moved or affected (Das et al, 2003; Hoog et al, 2005; Spence et al, 2011). While fear of a neg­ative out­come (e.g. lung cancer) can be an effective way of pro­moting beha­vi­oural changes (e.g. giving up smoking), the link between the threat and the beha­viour must be per­sonal and direct (Hoog et al, 2005). Typically, cli­mate change is per­ceived as neither a direct nor a per­sonal threat – and so shocking people into doing their recyc­ling is not neces­sarily the right idea.

As people move towards con­tem­plating action, fear appeals can help form a beha­vi­oural intent, providing an impetus or spark; how­ever such appeals must be coupled with con­structive inform­a­tion and sup­port to reduce the sense of danger (Moser & Dilling, 2007). The danger is that fear can also be dis­em­powering – pro­du­cing feel­ings of help­less­ness, remote­ness and lack of con­trol (O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole, 2009). The right kind of fear-based mes­sage is “We know this is scary and over­whelming, but many of us feel this way and we are doing some­thing about it”.

Unless care­fully used in a mes­sage that con­tains con­structive advice and a per­sonal and direct link with the indi­vidual, fear is likely to trigger bar­riers to engage­ment with cli­mate change, such as denial (Stoll-Kleemann et al., 2001; Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole & Whitmarsh,2007). Similarly, studies have shown that guilt can play a role in motiv­ating people to take action but can also func­tion to stim­u­late defensive mech­an­isms against the per­ceived threat or chal­lenge to one’s sense of iden­tity (as a good, moral person). In the latter case, beha­viours may be left untouched (whether driving a SUV or taking a flight) as people defend them­selves against any feel­ings of guilt or com­pli­city through deploy­ment of a range of jus­ti­fic­a­tions for the beha­viour (Ferguson & Branscombe, 2010).

A recent study by psy­cho­lo­gists at Berkeley, California (Feinberg & Willer, 2010), found that ‘apo­ca­lyptic’ mes­sages about cli­mate change impacted on dif­ferent people in dif­ferent ways. For those who believe in a ‘just world’ – that bad things don’t, by and large, happen to good people – mes­sages that ended in dire con­sequences actu­ally increased their scep­ti­cism about cli­mate change. The researchers sug­gested that the con­flict between the neg­ative impacts of cli­mate change and their belief in a just world led to the mes­sage being ignored – and even used as evid­ence that cli­mate change was not occur­ring. The lesson for cli­mate change com­mu­nic­ators is that scare tac­tics must be used with cau­tion: there is the pos­sib­ility they will backfire.


Das, de Wit, Stroebe (2003). Fear Appeals Motivate Acceptance of Action Recommendations: Evidence for a Positive Bias in the Processing of Persuasive Messages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 650–664.

Feinberg, M. & Willer, R. (2010). Apocalypse Soon?: Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just-World Beliefs. Psychological Science, 22 (1), 34–38.

Ferguson & Branscombe (2010). Collective guilt medi­ates the effect of beliefs about global warming on will­ing­ness to engage in mit­ig­a­tion beha­viour. Journal of Environmental Psychology 30 (2) 135–142.

Hoog, N., Stroebe, W., & de Wit, J. B. F. (2005). The impact of Fear Appeals on pro­cessing and accept­ance of action recom­mend­a­tions. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 31, 24–33.

Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers per­ceived to enga­ging with cli­mate change among the UK public and their policy implic­a­tions. Global Environmental Change, 17 (3−4), 445–459.

Moser, S. C., & Dilling, L. (Eds.). (2007). Creating a cli­mate for change: Communicating cli­mate change and facil­it­ating social change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Neill, S. & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear Won’t Do It”: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations. Science Communication 30, 355–379.

Spence, A., Poortinga, W., Butler, C. & Pidgeon, N. (2011). Perceptions of cli­mate change and will­ing­ness to save energy related to flood exper­i­ence. Nature Climate Change, 1(1) 46–49.

Stoll-Kleemann, S., O’Riordan, T., & Jaeger, C. C. (2001). The psy­cho­logy of denial con­cerning cli­mate mit­ig­a­tion meas­ures: Evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, 11(2), 107–117.

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