Call to fear to protect people … and get the opposite effect

Call to fear to protect people ... and get the opposite effect

© Supplied by La Tribune

Rudy Gobert, famous French player in the American NBA, had fun at a press conference highly publicized in early March, to touch all the microphones and surfaces that surround it, joking about the risk of a pandemic. A little before, Carla Bruni declared “we don’t fear the coronavirus” before coughing on her interlocutors during a fashion show. Both have since apologized.

In addition, many citizens continued to go to the park or meet for a coffee despite the recommendations for social distancing made the day before, Saturday March 14, at the highest level of the state. Dangerous ?

What do these amazing behaviors tell us? How can we understand them, decrypt them?

These behaviors show, first of all, how hard government and public health officials are to convince citizens of the seriousness of the situation and the relevance of the restrictive measures taken. Both public health officials and government officials are hesitant about the right method. Should they “scare” people? And if so to what extent?

These decisions are complex. However, in the reactions observed, we find known phenomena.

From one fear to another

Stage 3 of the Covid19 epidemic is now reached. The threat is therefore real and serious. A call to fear therefore seems relevant.

The call to fear is widely used in prevention campaigns. It is a complex mechanism well known to scientists. It can be approached from the angle of the threat made to scare. It is then the very content of the call to fear. In the case of Covid-19, these are the risks of complications and death. It can also be seen from the perspective of fear generated in targeted receptors. It is then about the subjective and personal emotion felt.

However, at this level already, there is a major problem. How to be sure that a call to fear will actually scare but at the same time it will not scare too ?

We are currently seeing reactions which suggest that the appeals to fear made have, on some, triggered extreme fear. The media and social networks continuously fuel this fear with very anxiety-provoking programs and information. Too anxiety-provoking, according to 86.7% of French respondents in a survey by Le Point on March 3. The shift is then “From fear of the coronavirus epidemic to “the epidemic of fear”

Doctors are therefore worried about the “global health and above all economic panic” triggered by the coronavirus, its management and its media coverage. They denounce in particular theft of masks and hydroalcoholic gel in hospitals, to the detriment of the frail.

They also condemn the rush for food businesses to stockpile excessive food when no supply disruption is expected. They finally scandalize physical confrontations for rolls of toilet paper in certain countries.

But, at the same time, behaviors located at the other extreme of the apparent continuum of fear (like the examples given above) are also noted: carelessness, unconsciousness, challenge of instructions and brave humor in support . How can we explain such reactions in a context that is nevertheless serious?

Know where to place the cursor

To understand these surprising findings, let’s go back to the extended model of parallel processes of the health communication specialist Kim Witte. It is based on the theory of motivation to protect the researcher Ronald Rogers and the distinction introduced by psychologist Howard Leventhal (1970) between fear control and danger control.

A call to fear must awaken fear with a relevant threat. This is what will motivate the individual to follow the recommended recommendation and to protect themselves against the threat. This danger control process is profitable because it seeks to solve the problem through appropriate behavior. On the contrary, if the individual is part of a fear control process, he develops behaviors that are ill-suited. He therefore seeks above all to reduce the strong emotion of fear felt. He can for example put in place defensive strategies. Some of the examples above relate to this latter mechanism.

Two complementary perception mechanisms

Witte’s model accounts for the existence of two perceptions when faced with a call to fear. First, the perception of threat arises in terms of perceived severity (or severity) and in terms of perceived vulnerability to that threat. In other words, in the case that interests us

Do I see Covid19 as a serious cause?

Do I see myself as vulnerable to Covid19?

However, we have known for a long time that young people are not very receptive to threats in terms of health. They often feel invulnerable.

They therefore heard very little and followed the recommendations given. This effect was undoubtedly increased by the initial presentation of the virus as being dangerous for the elderly or frail.

Second, the evaluation of effectiveness is done through the perception of effectiveness of the recommended behavior and the perception of self-efficacy (or personal effectiveness) with regard to this behavior. In the case of coronavirus,

Do I consider that the recommendations made are effective in dealing with Covid19?

Do I feel personally capable of implementing these behaviors?

It is the relationship established between these two evaluations (threat and effectiveness) which means that there is a search for control of the danger if the perceived effectiveness is greater than the perceived threat. The target then considers that it can effectively protect itself from the threat. Conversely, if the target perceives the threat but does not perceive the effectiveness, then it only seeks to control its fear. This situation causes the hoped-for persuasive failure. There is a complete rejection of the message or defense reactions (denial, avoidance), like those observed.

There may also be exaggerated reactions. For example, some people are so anxious that they completely decompensate when they get to the emergency room. In addition, the French had to face injunctions which could seem contradictory. On the one hand, they were asked not to have social interactions. On the other hand, however, they were asked to fulfill their duty as voters. As a result, the perception of the effectiveness of the recommendations has undoubtedly been diminished. It therefore left plenty of room for perceived threats.

In fact, finally, some citizens seem to have been more afraid of the threat of confinement than that of the virus. They then managed this fear by behaviors deemed appropriate by them (abundant stocks).

Frequent resistance

From this perspective of fear control, but also if the individual has the feeling that we are trying to limit his individual freedom, he can resist. Thus, because of the recommended behavior recommendations or their formulation perceived as very directive, with a tone deemed too authoritarian for example, targets can develop a well-known form of resistance: psychological reactance.

It is more exactly situational reactance. The individual reacts to a situation in which he feels a possible loss of freedom since he is being subjected to behavior. Faced with this threat to his freedom, he can react to the extreme with a so-called “boomerang” effect. He will then, like Rudy Gobert or some French people these last few days, set up a behavior which is opposite to that recommended. These behaviors are, of course, the opposite of the famous “barrier gestures”.

Manipulating fear therefore presupposes a good knowledge of the underlying mechanisms in order to avoid the errors manifestly made in recent weeks in the management of the Covid-19 crisis.


Through Marie-Laure Gavard-Perret, Professor of management, Grenoble IAE, CERAG laboratory, specialist in social marketing and persuasive and preventive communication, Universite Grenoble Alpes and Marie-Claire Wilhelm, Lecturer Grenoble IAE, CERAG, UGA, Universite Grenoble Alpes

The original version of this article was posted on The Conversation.


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