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date: 22 January 2018

Summary and Keywords

Fear is a negatively valenced discrete emotional state that is an inherent part of the human experience. With strong evolutionary roots, fear serves important functions, including alerting people to present threats and motivating action to avoid future threats. As such, fear is an emotion that frequently attracts the attention of scholars and message designers who hope to persuade audiences to change their behavior in light of potential threats to well-being and public safety. Several theories have aimed to describe the effects of fear-based appeals on audiences, focusing largely on the cognitive correlates of fear (i.e., severity and susceptibility) and their subsequent impacts on persuasive outcomes. However, more recent theorizing has returned to a focus on the influence that the emotion of fear itself has on attitude and behavior change. Given that many health-oriented fear appeals have been shown to evoke multiple emotions, including anger, disgust, and sadness, current theorizing has taken a mixed-emotions or emotional flow perspective to provide a deeper understanding of fear appeal effects. Further, individual differences have been considered to determine who is most likely to experience fear during and after message consumption.

In addition to fear appeals that purposefully aim to scare audiences to motivate attitude and behavior change, recent work suggests that fear can be generated by other forms of messages (e.g., news accounts, social media posts, interpersonal conversations) that may influence receivers’ approaches to health issues. Moreover, research also suggests that fear may motivate social sharing of messages, which can in turn allow for more widespread influence of fear-based messages.

Keywords: fear, persuasion, risk, media, social sharing

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