Study examines history of using fear to influence public’s health choices

illustration of a cigarette and a silhouette holding a gun to his head

Fear never works. Or does it? Fear can be a powerful tool in public health efforts, although graphic, emotionally evocative campaigns have been the source of controversy over the past half-century. The histories of efforts to reduce smoking and raise awareness of AIDS throw the debate into high relief.

In an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, Amy Fairchild, associate dean of academic affairs and professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, joined colleagues from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the New York City Department of Health in detailing fear’s role in these two major public health campaigns.

In this research project funded by the Greenwell Foundation, Fairchild and colleagues explore the history of fear in public health, how its use has changed and is changing, and the social, political and ethical issues involved with using such a powerful emotion in public health communications.

Ongoing and future public health messaging efforts will need to be informed by social and political factors, as campaigns will need to make effective use of fear but must avoid stigmatizing vulnerable populations or spreading irrational fears.

“Emotions like fear are powerful messaging tools, but should be balanced with facts and used with care,” said Fairchild.

More at Vital Record and the School of Public Health