Research Summary

Fear Appeals and College Students’ Attitudes and Behavioral Intentions Toward Global Warming

Using Messages of Fear and Self-Efficacy to Shift Attitudes about Global Warming

The Journal of Environmental Education

Public engagement is key to mitigating global warming as it is primarily attributed to human activity, mainly through the emissions of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. Since public knowledge of global warming mainly comes from mass media, the effects of media messaging on influencing behavior and engagement is critical to understand. Journalists frequently communicate this information through the use of fear-inducing messages, with a technique called “fear appeal,” which stresses negative consequences. This tactic has been used in many health campaigns to evoke changes in behavior and attitudes. The effectiveness of using fear appeal with global warming, however, is less studied and, therefore, this research set out to explore the relationship between fear appeal and attitudes and behaviors toward global warming.

Implemented with college students in Taiwan, the study was designed using Witte’s Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM), which explains relationships between fear appeals and the subsequent behaviors to control perceived dangers and fear. Witte’s EPPM is based on the recipients’ perceptions of four components: (1) severity of the problem; (2) susceptibility of the participant to being affected by the problem; (3) response efficacy, or an individual’s belief that his or her actions to reduce the severity of the problem will be effective; and (4) self-efficacy, or an individual’s belief that she or he can make a difference in solving the problem.

Each of the four components of the model affects how participants perceive the severity of the issue and also their resultant behavior, particularly whether they engage in taking action or avoid taking action. The model theorizes that, for participants to take action, they must feel that the problem is severe and that they are susceptible to being affected by the issue. Critically, they must also feel a high degree of response efficacy and self-efficacy. The other potential response to fear appeal messaging— and the unintended, undesirable consequence—is that the recipient may respond to the fear appeal through avoidance. This can happen if the solutions offered are not perceived as effective or self-efficacious. This avoidance could be a disastrous consequence of using fear appeal messages about global climate change, which is why the researcher sought to examine this issue.

To understand the most effective way to use fear appeal messaging regarding global climate change, the author studied combinations of high-threat/low-threat messages with high/low efficacy. The author created these messages by selecting four stories from a Taiwanese news database with nearly 2,300 news articles about global climate change. Study participants include 341 undergraduate students enrolled in six communication courses at a university in northern Taiwan; these students completed pre- and post-tests. The pre-test questions measured students’ attitudes and behaviors regarding global climate change—specifically, this survey measured participants’ attitudes on items related to what they believe individuals should do and what governments should do, as well as the participants’ own personal behavioral intentions. Government regulation intentions were also measured and consisted of attitudes toward actions requiring the respondents to mobilize communities and pressure the government to change emissions regulations. The posttest asked similar questions and also included one of the four stories, which the researcher asked students to read prior to taking the test.

This study’s findings demonstrate significant differences between the high-threat/high-efficacy messaging (HH) compared to the low-threat/low-efficacy messaging (LL). The HH group displayed a significant positive shift in their attitudes regarding what “individuals should do” between their pre- and post-tests. The HH group also displayed pre- and post-test means significantly higher than the high-efficacy/low-threat (HL) and low-threat/ high-efficacy (LH) groups regarding what “individuals should do,” “governments should do,” and “personal intentions,” which in turn had higher means than the LL group. The LL group showed a significant decrease in their attitudes about what “individuals should do,” about what “governments should do,” and in their own “personal behavioral intentions.” In other words, the LL messaging generated negative attitudes as they controlled participants’ fear with avoidance. The pre- and posttest results for the “government regulation intentions” among all four high-/low-threat and high-/low-efficacy groups did not show any significant difference. This may be because these types of behaviors were difficult and time-consuming to carry out. This result demonstrates the limitations of high-threat fear appeal messaging. Nonetheless, the HH group had the most promising outcomes, followed by the HL or LH groups; the LL group had the least positive effect.

Using high-threat/high-efficacy messaging about global warming significantly influenced the attitudes and behavioral intentions in college students. This understanding can provide a framework for effective messaging both in mass media and when teaching. It also demonstrates the importance of avoiding low-threat/low-efficacy messaging for its potential to evoke avoidance and inactivity.

The Bottom Line

Fear appeal messaging focuses on negative consequences of a threat, such as the perils of global warming. This type of messaging can be an effective way to motivate pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors toward global warming, but only if participants are given potential solutions that they believe to be effective and that they can personally accomplish. Downplaying the dangers of the threat, or failing to provide suggestions for meaningful and accomplishable action, can lead to avoidance and inaction.