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  • Writer's picturejeannettesutton

Scary Messages - motivating behavior with persuasive language

There has been a long and ongoing discussion about how "scary" a message should be to motivate behavior. Some argue that people need to be frightened to get them to act; others argue that the media is filled with too many scary sounding messages; still others are concerned that scary language will make people desensitized and less likely to act. But what is the sweet spot in our messaging?

Risk communication researchers have determined that a primary motivation to act is the "feeling of risk" - that is, there is a link between emotions and behaviors. That increased sense of danger will also increase the likelihood of taking a protective action. But, of course, this is situational and also dependent upon the individual and their prior experiences.

Within warning research, the feeling of risk is characterized as the personalization of a threat. Threat that is personalized is threat that can directly affect the message receiver in some capacity and would require action to keep safe. However, for a message to be effective, as the feeling of risk (generally in the form of fear) increases, something else has to increase too - perceptions of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the sense that we can take the actions that are recommended to keep us safe. Messages that do not include content about protective actions will be rated much lower than those that instruct individuals on how to protect themselves. (See, for instance, this research on the inclusion of efficacy content for unfamiliar hazards by Fischer et al. and by Sutton et al.)

What does this mean for the message in the Warning Gallery today?

al alert for a dangerous person in a neighborhood

Today's Warning Gallery message seems designed to promote that feeling of risk. It starts by stating that this is an emergency and then presents a call to action - stay inside and lock your doors. Litte information is offered about what the dangerous person looks like, if they have a weapon, or if they have done something violent that warrants a WEA message. Furthermore, police have been dispatched to search for some mysterious dangerous person in a multi-block area. The message receivers are told to call 911 if they see anything suspicious.

We're certainly curious about how effective this kind of messaging would be for persons in the area of Park Place Apartments. The kinds of questions that we would ask are the following: Did this message help recievers to personalize the feeling of risk? Did it provide enough information to understand why police were in the area? Did it help them to feel like they could protect themselves? And did it help them to take an action that would limit their exposure to the threat?

This post probably feels incomplete. And that's because it is. We haven't drawn conclusions about this message and others like it. Not yet, at least. But we do know that the questions we ask differ from the approach of "was it scary enough" because we kow that scaring people is not going to be enough to motivate action.

For more recommended contents, be sure to download The Warning Lexicon - it's free and offers step-by-step instructions on how to write a better warning message.


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