Guilt and fear motivate better than hope

"Smoking pot may not kill you, but it will kill your mother," says an ad from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In the first empirical work to examine both stated intentions and actual behavior, researchers argue that this sort of negative message evoking both fear and guilt is a far more effective deterrent to potentially harmful behavior than positive hopeful or feel-good messages.

"Making people feel good is less important than making people feel accountable when it comes to making wise decisions about self-protection," explain Kirsten A. Passyn (Salisbury University) and Mita Sujan (Tulane University) in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. "Our work separates intentions from implementation and clarifies the role of emotions in this process."

Whether it involves persuading people to use sunscreen or eat high fiber foods, good intentions can be elicited by a variety of appeals. However, getting people to actually follow through on these intentions and change their behavior requires appeals combining fear and an emotion high in self-accountability, such as regret, guilt or challenge.

"[This research] suggests a new emotion-based approach to encouraging a wide range of health protection behaviors," say Passyn and Sujan. "We illustrate the critical role of emotions in persuasion, especially for translating tendencies into action."

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Kirsten A. Passyn and Mita Sujan. "Self-Accountability Emotions and Fear Appeals: Motivating Behavior" Journal of Consumer Research. March 2006.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.
-- Eleanor Roosevelt