Fear appeals, defensive avoidance and their application to road safety messages

Pedruzzi, Rebecca Anne (2015) Fear appeals, defensive avoidance and their application to road safety messages. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Mass media advertising has an important role to play in road safety efforts, particularly in creating awareness and enhancing risk perceptions (Delhomme et al., 2009; Elliott, 2011). Poor methodological design, and a lack of scientific evaluation mean that it is difficult to determine if road safety campaigns are effective let alone what elements make them effective (Wundersitz, Hutchinson, & Woolley, 2010). Elliot (2011) suggests that the first aim of road safety campaigns should be to gain audience attention. The message then needs to be remembered, not necessarily as a message but the associations with the recommended behaviour. This process is often performed in road safety advertising through the use of threatening and graphic car crash scenes (Castillo-Manzano, Castro-Nuño, & Pedregal, 2012; Lewis, Watson, & White, 2008a). Some practitioners have cautioned that employing these types of messages in health promotion may be ineffective as they can lead to defensive responses such as avoidance or denial (Hoekstra & Wegman, 2011; Ruiter, Abraham, & Kok, 2001; Witte & Allen, 2000). However, this hypothesis is rarely explored in the road safety field. Identifying how and when avoidance occurs could be valuable and aid in the creation of appropriate mass media communications.

The present research programme considered evidence from both the road safety and broader health literature in aiming to understand the factors that may lead to the avoidance or acquisition of road risk information. As such, road threats were compared with the health threat of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) often employed in the literature. The factors under investigation included the role of positive beliefs (both optimism and unrealistic optimism) and cognitive precursors such as threat, efficacy and control appraisals.

Study 1 (n=311) employed a between subjects design that presented participants with threatening essay information about road or CHD outcomes. In the road condition, road crash outcomes were characterised by low perceived personal control and high control attributed to the role of other people. This was very different to control appraisals for the CHD condition where health outcomes were characterised by high perceived personal control and low perceived control attributed to others. Results demonstrated an interaction effect between the condition and perceived control where the adaptive effects of optimism were only noted in the CHD condition. Specifically, recall of risk information was greatest for optimists in the CHD condition characterised by high perceived personal control. These results suggested that the role of optimism in facilitating recall of risk information may largely be an artefact of perceived control appraisals. As such identifying targets characterised by high perceived personal control in road safety might be important to the acquisition of risk information

Study 2 (n=207) aimed to investigate the outcomes individuals perceived they could personally control with regard to road threats. This was performed relative to CHD threats. Results demonstrated the qualitatively different nature of threatening road outcomes. Overall, participants' beliefs in their ability to carry out risk and protective road behaviours were not related to beliefs in their ability to control road crash outcomes. However, there were strong relationships between behavioural control and perceived control over legal sanctions (specifically the occurrence of fines). In contrast for a CHD threat, participants perceived that what they did behaviourally influenced the occurrence of a heart attack outcome, via controlling a number of markers (e.g. blood pressure, weight) that indicate an individual is at risk. These findings demonstrate why threatening road messages characterised by crash outcomes are not ideal to use in road safety promotion efforts. Instead, messages presenting fine outcomes may be more appropriate as individuals perceive they have some influence over the outcome.

In a road only scenario (Study 3; n= 228), participants were once again presented with road risk information. This information portrayed risky behaviour leading to road crash and legal sanction outcomes in two separate essays. Results demonstrated that threat and efficacy appraisals were independently related to recall of the legal sanction information. Specifically, increases in threat and efficacy lead to increases in recall. No such relationships were demonstrated for the crash outcome information. Further, a high risk target group remembered equally as much legal sanction information compared to low risk groups who were engaging in higher levels of protective behaviour. For the crash information, a similar target group recalled less crash information than two low risk groups.

Overall, the findings suggest that threatening road safety messages may not lead to inattention processes, as long as the outcome is appraised as controllable by the individual and their ability to carry out risk and protective behaviours is related to the outcome presented. These findings are considered in light of current fear appeal theory and best practice health promotion and intervention.

Item ID: 43782
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: ads; advertising; defensive avoidance; fear appeals; health promotion; mass media; risky behaviours; road safety campaigns; road safety education; road safety messages; road safety
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Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Pedruzzi, R., Swinbourne, A., and Quirk, F. (2012) Who is in control? The development of a model for communicating health information. Psychology & Health, 27 (Supp 1). p. 102.

Pedruzzi, R., Swinbourne, A., and Quirk, F. (2012) One size fits all: communicating the unknown in health promotion. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 19 (Supp 1). S273-S274.

Quirk, Frances, Pedruzzi, Rebecca, and Swinbourne, Anne (2012) The development of a model predicting attention to health information: why perceived control is crucial. In: Population health in a changing world, p. 176. From: Population Health Congress 2012: Population health in a changing world, 10 - 12 September 2012, Adelaide, Australia. (Unpublished)

Pedruzzi, R., Quirk, F., and Swinbourne, A. (2011) Attending to health risk information: is denial always maladaptive? In: Combined Abstracts of 2011 Australia Psychology Annual Conference, p. 232. From: 46th Annual Conference of the Australian Psychological Society, 4-8 October 2011, Canberra, ACT, Australia.

Date Deposited: 18 May 2016 01:42
FoR Codes: 17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1701 Psychology > 170106 Health, Clinical and Counselling Psychology @ 33%
17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1702 Cognitive Science > 170201 Computer Perception, Memory and Attention @ 33%
17 PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCES > 1702 Cognitive Science > 170202 Decision Making @ 34%
SEO Codes: 88 TRANSPORT > 8801 Ground Transport > 880109 Road Safety @ 33%
92 HEALTH > 9202 Health and Support Services > 920205 Health Education and Promotion @ 33%
97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970117 Expanding Knowledge in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences @ 34%
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