How scary are threat appeals? Evaluating the intensity of fear in experimental research

James Price Dillard, Shu Scott Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


One long-standing concern holds that much is unknown about the operation of threat appeals because practical and ethical matters preclude the use of seriously frightening messages. This project compared the intensity of fear produced by experimental messages with that produced by adverse events, such as wars and hurricanes. Results showed that threat appeals (k = 80; N = 6,738; Δ = 2.15) have been effective at inducing levels of fear that are on par with the fear induced by real-world occurrences (k = 19, N = 4,928, Δ = 2.01). Thus, the positive, linear association between threat (X) and persuasion (Y) observed in previous meta-analyses is probably an accurate characterization of the X-Y association: a finding that is inconsistent with inverted-U theories. The distribution of fear values produced by the experimental messages provides empirical benchmarks for future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-24
Number of pages24
JournalHuman Communication Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Linguistics and Language


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