I was just wondering, I’ve been in a car accident myself so I know the serious dangers of it but would it ever be a good idea to publish non fatal accidents like show the pictures and even get stories from the victims themselves because people just don’t get how serious it is, I didn’t until I had the accident. What do you think?
Thank you for writing in - that is a great question with a lot to think about. Judging by the number of road safety campaigns that make use of fear appeals, there is a firm belief in the ability to ‘scare people straight’. The idea is that when fear is aroused, people will become more motivated to accept the message and recommendations presented in a campaign. Implicitly, the way people sometimes react to these types of campaigns (shock, horror, or even tears) is taken as a sign that the message got through to people, with the firm believers in these types of campaigns saying that they know it works ‘because you can see the tears in their eyes’. It is believed that this shows this technique works because people are affected by the campaign, therefore will take on the advice. However, it is important to remember that the amount of tears shed is not the ultimate goal of these campaigns. The ultimate goal is the effect the campaign has on actual behaviour and on the number of road accidents. The fact is that although fear can motivate people, it can also have the opposite effect. It may in fact lead people to employ so-called defensive responses. Such responses may take many forms, for example with people not believing the truth of the claims in the campaign, by them saying that the campaign has no personal relevance to oneself, or even by avoiding exposure to the campaign altogether. Indeed, from a scientific point of view, fear appeals are rather controversial, in the sense that research into this approach shows a mixed bag of results.
Another factor that determines whether or not fear appeals have the desired effect is the gender of the group the campaign is aimed at. Research into this has shown that women tend to respond more favourably to fear appeals than men. On the other hand, a newer approach is to use a nudge system to gently persuade a person to change their view and behaviours using something that is meaningful to them, usually via social media.
The above discussion on the possible pros and cons of fear appeals shows that neither one or the other is the right way. For one thing, trying to limit the possibility that people will respond defensively to a campaign is important, meaning that the fear the campaign suggests should not be so overwhelming that people feel they can do nothing to prevent it. One possible way to do this is by supplying the audience with specific actions that can be taken as preventive measures. It is also important that this action is not only something people think they will be able to do, but that they feel is both reliable and suitable to be considered a preventive measure. Furthermore, the audience should be made to feel that the problem is relevant to them.
All in all, the mantra ‘if you scare them, they will change’ is not as easy as it might at first glance appear to be. Even when all the pointers above are taken into account, people may react differently to a fear-based campaign than expected. Therefore, careful planning is in order, not just in terms of how people experienced the imagery, but rather of what most road safety campaigns are actually trying to accomplish. If you want to have a look at some of the UK campaigns you can find them on here.