An empirical examination of emotional and cognitive responses to threat appeals

  • Laura Chamberlain

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Advertising and other forms of communications are often used by government bodies, non-government organisations, and other institutions to try to influence the population to either a) reduce some form of harmful behaviour (e.g. smoking, drunk- driving) or b) increase some more healthy behaviour (e.g. eating healthily). It is common for these messages to be predicated on the chances of some negative event occurring if the individual does not either a) stop the harmful behaviour, or b) start / increase the healthy behaviour. This design of communication is referred to by many names in the relevant literature, but for the purposes of this thesis, will be termed a ‘threat appeal’. Despite their widespread use in the public sphere, and concerted academic interest since the 1950s, the effectiveness of threat appeals in delivering their objective remains unclear in many ways. In a detailed, chronological and thematic examination of the literature, two assumptions are uncovered that have either been upheld despite little evidence to support them, or received limited attention at all, in the literature. Specifically, a) that threat appeal characteristics can be conflated with their intended responses, and b) that a threat appeal always and necessarily evokes a fear response in the subject. A detailed examination of these assumptions underpins this thesis. The intention is to take as a point of departure the equivocality of empirical results, and deliver a novel approach with the objective of reducing the confusion that is evident in existing work. More specifically, the present thesis frames cognitive and emotional responses to threat appeals as part of a decision about future behaviour.
To further develop theory, a conceptual framework is presented that outlines the role of anticipated and anticipatory emotions, alongside subjective probabilities, elaboration and immediate visceral emotions, resultant from manipulation of the intrinsic message characteristics of a threat appeal (namely, message direction, message frame and graphic image). In doing so, the spectrum of relevant literature is surveyed, and used to develop a theoretical model which serves to integrate key strands of theory into a coherent model. In particular, the emotional and cognitive responses to the threat appeal manipulations are hypothesised to influence behaviour intentions and expectations pertaining to future behaviour.
Using data from a randomised experiment with a sample of 681 participants, the conceptual model was tested using analysis of covariance. The results for the conceptual framework were encouraging overall, and also with regard to the individual hypotheses. In particular, empirical results showed clearly that emotional responses to the intrinsic message characteristics are not restricted to fear, and that different responses to threat appeals were clearly attributed to specific intrinsic message characteristics. In addition, the inclusion of anticipated emotions alongside cognitive appraisals in the framework generated interesting results. Specifically, immediate emotions did not influence key response variables related to future behaviour, in support of questioning the assumption of the prominent role of fear in the response process that is so prevalent in existing literature. The findings, theoretical and practical implications, limitations and directions for future research are discussed.
Date of Award6 Oct 2015
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJohn M Rudd (Supervisor) & Nicholas J Lee (Supervisor)


  • advertising
  • social marketing
  • threat appeals
  • fear
  • consumer psychology
  • decision making

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