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Fear or encouragement, which is best to drive behaviour change?

The communications industry depends on fear of the perceived loss of something, in order to create the hope found in a product benefit. But, if if left too long unchecked, it can lead to a negative build-up of emotion that could be counter-productive to the original intent. Here we discuss fear and encouragement as communication tactics.

by Drew Owen, Chief Scientific Officer

Following our webinar in March, Getting MedComms right: navigating the age of the amateur expert, we’re taking the time to respond to questions we were unable to answer during the session and bringing in broader perspectives from across the Langland team.

In March this year, myself, Diane Ross and Annette Keith participated in a MedComms Network webinar reviewing communications throughout the COVID pandemic to look at what we can learn for good healthcare communications practice (https://lnkd.in/dN5tHkf). There was fantastic engagement from viewers, but unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to answer all the questions. So we wanted to take the time to respond to some of these, as well as provide broader perspectives from our team. Here I start the first of a series of responses from the team…

Question: Some of the government communications around COVID seem to be quite scaremongering. Do you think this tactic is effective? Comparing them to WWII posters, which were more encouraging, it would be interesting to see which strategy the panellists think is best.

First up I asked this question to Sian Dodwell, our Chief Strategy Officer.

“Fear is our greatest primal driver and will in most cases over-ride all others. Including sex and hunger. The communications industry depends on fear of the perceived loss of something, in order to create the hope found in a product benefit, so yes, I’m going to say it is a pretty effective tactic. And you can tell from the high levels of lockdown compliance that it has worked extremely well in this case. But timing is everything with this strategy, and I would say that the government have been extremely lucky with the timing of the vaccine, as they have been able to provide a message of hope just at the moment when the national psyche might otherwise have switched off from the scaremongering.”

My own thoughts closely mirror Sian’s, in that fear can be a great motivator for rapid, short-term change. However, if left too long unchecked, it can lead to a negative build-up of emotion that could be counter-productive to the original intent or have unwanted knock-on effects. Thinking back to the HIV campaigns of the 1980s, which focused on fear to try to prevent the spread of HIV, they may have had short-term success in raising awareness and limiting transmission, but unfortunately they also contributed to stigmatisation of the disease that we are still living with today. There has been no national health campaign since the 1980s around HIV to re-address the balance of negative perception and fear the original campaign portrayed, meaning that there is still a lot of outdated knowledge and opinion about HIV amongst the general population, which can negatively impact people living with the disease.

With regard to encouragement as an approach to behaviour change, it is probably a longer-term, more intensive strategy. Taking smoking as an example, fear of health consequences definitely has a part to play in getting people to quit, and indeed likely provides the initial impetus, but on its own can only get so far. It’s been shown that positive encouragement, interlinked with reinforcement and incentivisation, is much more likely to make the change stick in the long run.

Ultimately, both fear and encouragement can be effective, but need to be considered within the context of what’s trying to be achieved, both in the short and long term.

15th April 2021

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