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Fear Appeal Arguments

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Abstract

Many arguments in medicine and health appeal to the emotion of fear to gain acceptance of a claim or thesis. The health warning on a cigarette package that smoking causes cancer, particularly when accompanied by a graphic image of diseased lungs, is enough to achieve compliance with a recommended course of action (smoking cessation) for many people. However, the fact that large numbers of people read the warning and see the image and yet continue to smoke is a sign that the rational force of this argument is not compelling for many. This chapter will examine the conditions under which it may be rational to arouse fear to secure audience acceptance of a claim or course of action. Fear can be a productive emotion in argument when an individual believes that the fearful outcome (e.g. development of cancer) is not inevitable and can be modified, and an individual believes that he/she is able to modify his/her behaviour to avert this outcome. Social scientists have had more to say about these aspects of fear appeals than logicians. Their contribution will be considered alongside the logical dimensions of fear appeal arguments in this chapter.

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Correspondence to Louise Cummings .

Appendices

Chapter Summary

Key points

  • Fear appeal argument is the use of fear to achieve audience acceptance of a conclusion in argument. Throughout the long history of logic , the appeal to any type of emotion in argument has generally been characterized as a fallacy. This is also true of the emotion of fear. However, there are many contexts in which an appeal to fear in argument is rationally warranted. These contexts include medicine and health.

  • Fear appeal argument is a special type of argument from negative consequence. A proponent argues that an action A leads to a negative consequence C that arouses fear. However, C can be averted if the respondent undertakes a recommended protective action.

  • It was argued in this chapter that in a fear appeal argument, the basic logical structure of an argument from negative consequence needs to be supplemented by the inclusion of a fear premise (P3). This premise explicitly states that C arouses fear in the respondent. This premise is necessary because a negative consequence, even a particularly serious negative consequence, need not arouse fear in a respondent.

  • There are many logical pitfalls that can occur in the use of fear appeal argument. The proponent of the argument may misrepresent the consequence of the initial action as a deductive consequence when its standing is probabilistic in nature. Someone can smoke heavily for many years, for example, and not develop lung cancer . The proponent may also recommend protective actions that cannot avert the initial action and its consequence.

  • Fear appeal argument is also studied in the social sciences . Concepts such as self-efficacy (a person’s belief that he or she can carry out the recommended action) and response efficacy (a person’s belief that the recommended action will be successful in averting a negative and fearful consequence) have been found to influence the effectiveness of fear appeal argument in a range of experimental populations.

  • At least some rationally warranted uses of fear appeal argument can function as cognitive heuristics . A fear appeal heuristic is a quick and effective mental shortcut through systematic reasoning which is costly in cognitive terms and can be a source of logical errors and biases . Many effective health campaigns encourage heuristic processing of their critical safety messages to the public.

Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. (1)

    Walton, D. (2000). Scare Tactics: Arguments That Appeal to Fear and Threats. Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

This is the only book-length treatment of fear appeal argument in informal logic . In seven chapters, Walton examines the logical structure of the argument, the relationship of fear to threat appeals, the evaluation of fear appeals, and the contribution of social science to an understanding of the argument. There are many everyday cases of fear appeal argument examined, including some that relate to health (e.g. anti-smoking ads).

  1. (2)

    Tannenbaum, M. B., Zimmerman, R. S., Hepler, J., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K., & Albarracín, D. (2015). Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories. Psychological Bulletin, 141(6), 1178–1204.

The aim of these authors was to compile the largest available meta-analytic database of empirical fear appeal research. A total of 127 articles yielding 248 independent samples from diverse populations were reviewed. The authors found that fear appeals are effective at positively influencing attitude, intentions, and behaviour, and that there are no identified circumstances under which they backfire or lead to undesirable outcomes.

  1. (3)

    Kok, G. (ed.). (2014). The Effectiveness of Fear Appeals in Health Promotion. International Journal of Psychology, 49(2), 61–139.

This Special Section in an issue of the International Journal of Psychology contains five papers that address the use of fear appeals in health promotion. These papers discuss issues other than the logic of the argument, including the ethics of using distressing health promotion advertising, and neuroscientific evidence for defensive avoidance of fear appeals.

Questions

  1. (1)

    For most people, flu is an infectious disease that causes unpleasant symptoms but is usually self-limiting after a few days. However, for some people serious complications can arise. These complications include pneumonia , myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), and sepsis . Each of these conditions requires hospitalization of the patient and can result in death. For people with pre-existing conditions such as HIV, asthma and diabetes , the risk of developing serious complications is increased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US attempts to protect these high risk groups through targeted health campaigns. The poster in Fig. 4.13 warns individuals with asthma about their risk of developing serious complications of flu. Examine this poster in detail, and think about its content. Then answer the questions below.

    Fig. 4.13
    figure 13

    (Reproduced courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States)

    Poster advising people with asthma to get a flu vaccination

Questions

  1. (a)

    This poster is intended to convey a fear appeal argument to people with asthma . Reconstruct the premises and conclusion of this argument.

  2. (b)

    In most fear appeal arguments that we have encountered in this chapter, the initial action is an activity that is under the volitional control of an agent. So, an individual may use a prescribed or illegal drug, or engage in an activity like smoking. Does the initial action in this case differ from these earlier examples?

  3. (c)

    What role is the boxer and boxing in general playing in this health message from the CDC ?

  4. (d)

    What is the logical function of the feature that you have identified in your response to (b)?

  5. (e)

    Social scientists have found that fear appeal arguments are most effective when the actions that can prevent an undesirable consequence from arising display self-efficacy and response efficacy. Explain what these concepts mean. Does the proposed protective action in this fear appeal argument display self-efficacy and response efficacy ?

  6. (2)

    The ingestion of mercury and related compounds through fish consumption is a significant public health problem in many parts of the world. There is evidence that pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children are at particular risk from the adverse health effects of exposure to mercury. Zhang et al. (2018) reported that a mother’s consumption of aquatic products (at 6 ounces a day) from offshore farms in China is associated with a loss of 0.38 IQ points in their newborns. These ‘at risk’ groups are at the forefront of public health efforts to raise awareness about safe fish consumption. The following poster, which is also available in Chinese and Spanish, is used by public health authorities in California to warn about elevated mercury levels in certain types of fish. Examine the poster in Fig. 4.14 carefully, and then answer the following questions:

    Fig. 4.14
    figure 14

    A Proposition 65 warning in California about mercury in fish (the official name of Proposition 65 is the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986)

Questions

  1. (a)

    All the essential elements of a fear appeal argument are present in this poster. These elements are the initial action that leads to an adverse outcome, the fear arousal that is associated with this outcome, and the recommended protective action that can avert the adverse outcome and its associated fear. Identify each of these elements in the above poster.

  2. (b)

    It has been argued that much of the guidance on fish consumption in pregnancy fails to make women aware of the nutritional benefits of eating fish (Taylor et al. 2018). Is this an accurate characterization of the above poster?

  3. (c)

    Explain how an assessment of the benefits of fish consumption might play a role in the evaluation of the fear appeal argument in this poster. In what other type of argument that we have encountered must the positive and negative consequences of an action be considered during argument evaluation ?

  4. (d)

    Expertise is used extensively in this warning about fish consumption. What form does this expertise take? Which of the elements in a fear appeal argument (see [a] above) does this expertise make the greatest contribution to?

  5. (e)

    Which aspect of the advice recommended by the agencies that you identified in your response to (d) permits women to derive nutritional benefits from fish consumption while reducing their risk of mercury exposure?

  6. (3)

    We saw in Exercise 4.3 that a public health campaign that arouses fear but that does not convey readily accessible protective actions is unlikely to be effective. In that case, the public health issue was antibiotic resistance , and the protective actions could only be accessed through a website—they were not stated in the poster that aroused fear. Like the posters in Exercise 4.3, the following poster is also produced by the Public Health Agency of Canada . Examine this poster and then answer the questions below it:

    1. (a)

      In Sect. 4.4, one of the logical pitfalls in the use of fear appeal argument was described as the error of representing the negative consequence of an action in terms of deductive consequence, so that if action A occurs it is inevitably the case that consequence C will follow. What words in the poster in Fig. 4.15 indicate that the relation between an action and its consequence is not construed in this case in terms of deductive consequence?

    2. (b)

      An argument may state the negative consequence of an action without thereby arousing fear. Is this an accurate description of the poster in Fig. 4.15? Provide a justification of your response.

      Fig. 4.15
      figure 15

      (© All rights reserved. Stop the spread of the Flu. Public Health Agency of Canada. Adapted and reproduced with permission from the Minister of Health, 2018)

      A public health poster about influenza that targets people 65 years and older

    3. (c)

      Four protective actions are described at the bottom of the poster in Fig. 4.15. What specific conditions must be in place in order for someone to comply with these actions?

    4. (d)

      Does the person who can comply with the conditions stated in your response to (c) display high self-efficacy or high response efficacy ?

    5. (e)

      Two of the recommended protective actions concern the protection of people other than the person who is reading the poster. What are the actions in question? What other fear appeal argument that we have examined in this chapter recommends actions that protect people other than the recipient of the argument?

Answers

Exercise 4.1

(1)

  1. (a)

    The fearful consequence is accidental death, and (b) the action that causes it is the use of the opioid oxycodone. The consequence and action in this case are the same as in the CDC poster.

  1. (2)

    The poster contains the words college party where it can be expected that alcohol will be consumed. The consumption of alcohol increases the likelihood that an opioid like oxycodone will cause respiratory depression and death.

  2. (3)

    In the CDC poster, it was strongly implied that readers should avoid the use of opioid drugs altogether or at least restrict their use. In this case, however, it appears to be accepted that combined alcohol and opioid use will occur—the avoidance of this behaviour is not the recommended protective action. Instead, the protective action that is recommended is the use of naloxone by a college friend.

  3. (4)

    This poster differs from the CDC poster in that the agent of the initial action is the student who takes oxycodone while the agent of the protective action is a college friend who is able to administer naloxone. The agents of these two actions are different people, while in the CDC poster the same person is the agent of both initial and protective actions.

  4. (5)

    This poster is not advancing a fear appeal argument. Although there is a fearful consequence (death) of an action (use of oxycodone), the fearful consequence is not used as a reason to avoid the action that caused it. Instead, the fearful consequence is used to prompt another agent to perform a quite separate action (the administration of naloxone).

Exercise 4.2

(1)

  1. (a)

    The action that leads to a negative consequence or bad outcome is the use of lead-based paints in the decoration of homes.

  2. (b)

    The individuals who are most likely to sustain damage related to the use of lead-based paints are children. This is implied by the word ‘generations’. It is also explicitly stated at the bottom of the poster where a telephone number is given so that members of the public can find out how to protect their children from lead poisoning .

  3. (c)

    The protective action that is implied by the poster is clearly the avoidance of lead-based paints in homes. For other protective actions, readers of the poster are advised to use the telephone number at the bottom of the poster.

  1. (2)

    The intended recipients of this fear appeal argument are the parents of children. However, it is children who are most likely to sustain damage from lead-based paints. The logical feature of fear appeal argument that ensures that parents will be motivated to undertake protective actions is that it is in their interests to ensure that no harm comes to their children. The interests of the recipient are explicitly articulated in P2 of the logical structure of a fear appeal argument.

  2. (3)

    The poster poses the question ‘What’s on your walls?’. This question contributes to fear arousal by making readers aware that the threat to their children’s health does not exist at a distance from them but lurks within the home.

  3. (4)

    The significant difference between the poster in Fig. 4.7 and the posters in Fig. 4.6 is that the lead poisoning poster does not make use of visual imagery. Fear arousal in premise P3 of a fear appeal argument is most likely to be affected (probably diminished) in the absence of visual imagery.

  4. (5)

    The expression that creates an ambiguity is the noun phrase lifetime guarantee. Normally, we associate this phrase with the guarantee of the quality of a product (e.g. John’s new watch has a lifetime guarantee). However, in this poster the typical or expected meaning of the phrase is reworked to mean a product that will cause health damage on an indefinite basis.

Exercise 4.3

  1. (1)

    The initial action in this fear appeal argument is the misuse of antibiotics especially for the treatment of conditions like cold or flu (poster [c] in Fig. 4.12). The negative consequence of this action is the development of antibiotic resistance (posters [a] and [b] in Fig. 4.12). This consequence arouses fear in readers through the suggestion in posters (a) and (b) that someday their own children may develop a bacterial infection that cannot be effectively treated by the use of antibiotics . The recommended protective action is to take antibiotics only as directed by a doctor, and to keep hands clean and vaccinations updated in order to avoid contracting bacterial infections (and the need to take antibiotics ) in the first place (poster [c] in Fig. 4.12).

  2. (2)

    Posters (a) and (b) convey a negative consequence, namely, antibiotic resistance , and arouse fear in readers. Neither of these elements of a fear appeal argument is conveyed by poster (c).

  3. (3)

    Poster (c) conveys an initial action, namely, the use (or misuse) of antibiotics to treat conditions such as cold and flu. Poster (c) also conveys protective actions such as using antibiotics only as directed by a doctor and not to treat ailments like cold and flu. Further protective actions include hand washing and vaccination . Neither of these elements is conveyed by posters (a) and (b).

  4. (4)

    The fear aroused by posters (a) and (b) is unlikely to lead to the type of behaviour modification that is needed to address antibiotic resistance . This is because the protective actions that can reduce antibiotic resistance, such as not taking antibiotics for colds and flu, are not stated in the posters. Instead, readers are recommended to visit a website ‘to learn more about what [they] can do’.

  5. (5)

    The campaign adopted by the Public Health Agency of Canada appears somewhat disjointed and is not strongly rationally warranted. No single campaign poster captures all the elements that are required for members of the public to make a positive contribution to the reduction of antibiotic resistance . Posters (a) and (b) make it difficult for readers to undertake protective actions. Meanwhile, poster (c) fails to state the very serious negative consequence that results from incorrect use of antibiotics , namely, antibiotic resistance , and fails to arouse the legitimate sense of fear that should attend this consequence.

End-of-Chapter Questions

(1)

  1. (a)

    The fear appeal argument in the poster can be reconstructed as follows:

    • Premise 1: If you (a person with asthma ) contract flu, then there is an increased likelihood that serious complications will occur.

    • Premise 2: The development of serious complications is a very bad outcome for you.

    • Premise 3: The development of serious complications arouses considerable fear in you.

    • Conclusion : Therefore, you should avoid contracting flu by getting a flu vaccination .

  2. (b)

    In this case, the initial action that leads to a fearful consequence is the development of flu. Contracting this infectious disease appears not to be under a person’s volitional control, unless in the unusual case where someone has deliberately undertaken efforts to become infected. But even when the initial action is contracting flu, we must assume that the person with asthma is able to exercise some degree of volitional control over this action. If we could not make this assumption, then the protective action that is recommended in the conclusion of a fear appeal argument would not make sense, as it would encourage the recipient of the argument to take steps to control an action or process that cannot be controlled.

  3. (c)

    The boxer and boxing are serving as a metaphor in this case. This permits a number of metaphorical comparisons to be drawn between the boxer and the person with asthma who develops flu. For example, the person with asthma may be knocked out or floored by the flu in the same way that the boxer can be knocked out or floored by a single punch. The person with asthma may lose consciousness and even die as a result of flu in the same way that a boxer may lose consciousness and die as a result of a severe blow to the head. However, in the same way that the boxer may be able to pick himself up and fight back, so too may the person with asthma be able to fight back against the flu.

  4. (d)

    The ‘boxer’ metaphor has a logical function in that it allows us to conceive of the consequence and protective action in the fear appeal argument in concrete terms. The flu in a person with asthma can have particularly adverse consequences in the form of serious complications. These complications are equivalent to the boxer who has been knocked out. The protective action to be taken by the person with asthma is to have a flu vaccination . The vaccination is equivalent to the fight back of the boxer.

  5. (e)

    Self-efficacy is a person’s belief that they can undertake the recommended action. Response efficacy is a person’s belief that the recommended action will successfully avert the undesirable consequence. The recommended protective action in this case is getting a flu vaccination . The intended readers of this poster—people with asthma —know that flu vaccinations are readily available and that they can easily access them, in most cases for no cost. So self-efficacy is satisfied in this particular fear appeal argument. People with asthma generally trust their healthcare providers to give them expert advice. When doctors and others in the medical community recommend the flu vaccination as the most effective way of averting serious complications of flu, they believe that this is indeed the case. So this fear appeal argument also displays response efficacy .

(2)

  1. (a)

    The initial action is the consumption of fish and particularly certain types of fish (e.g. swordfish). The adverse outcome is the development of cancer, birth defects in babies, and other reproductive harm. The process of thinking about the development of serious disease (e.g. cancer) in oneself and birth defects in one’s children leads to fear arousal. There are several protective actions recommended for pregnant and nursing women, women who may become pregnant, and children. These groups should avoid eating certain fish altogether. They should also eat a variety of different types of fish, and eat smaller fish rather than larger, older fish. Women are advised to start taking these protective actions a year before getting pregnant.

  2. (b)

    This is not an accurate characterization of the poster. This is because the poster explicitly states that there are nutritional benefits from the consumption of fish: “Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet and a source of essential nutrients.”

  3. (c)

    This fear appeal argument about fish consumption is only rationally warranted to the extent that the fear aroused by the negative outcome of consumption (e.g. birth defects) exceeds any nutritional and other benefits that derive from consumption. The same weighing up of positive and negative consequences of actions is central to an evaluation of slippery slope argument (see Sect. 3.3 in Chapter 3).

  4. (d)

    The expertise in this warning about fish consumption takes the form of recommendations from three expert agencies, namely, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Department of Health Services. The expertise of these bodies makes the most significant contribution to the protective actions that pregnant women and nursing mothers are urged to take.

  5. (e)

    The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are not advising women to avoid eating fish altogether, only to ‘limit their weekly consumption’. These agencies also recommend types of fish and shellfish that have lower mercury, including pollock, shrimp, scallops, and some types of tuna.

(3)

  1. (a)

    The words ‘increased risk’ in the poster in Fig. 4.15 indicate that the relation between the action in this case (namely, contracting flu) and the consequence (developing complications) is a probabilistic relation and is not one of deductive consequence.

  2. (b)

    The poster in Fig. 4.15 states a negative consequence of contracting flu, namely, the development of complications. But, in addition, it also attempts to arouse fear. This is achieved through the use of a warning symbol. This symbol is similar to those found on construction sites and on roadsides where their function is to warn pedestrians and others of danger.

  3. (c)

    In order to comply with the recommended protective actions in this poster, readers must be able to bear the costs of vaccination (if such costs exist), and be able to sustain the loss of pay if they stay at home (many people aged 65 years and older are still in paid employment). They must also be able to travel to health facilities that offer vaccinations , and have access to hand cleansing facilities and products. These financial and practical conditions must be satisfied if these protective actions are to be carried out by members of the general public.

  4. (d)

    The person who can comply with the financial and practical conditions described in the response to (c) will believe that they can undertake the recommended protective actions. That is, this person will have high self-efficacy .

  5. (e)

    The two recommended actions that protect people other than the reader of the poster are the recommendation to cough and sneeze into your arm and not your hand, and to stay at home if you are unwell. These actions are intended to reduce the transmission of influenza to others. The ‘second hand smoke’ example is the other fear appeal argument examined in this chapter that recommends actions that are protective of someone other than the recipient of the argument.

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Cummings, L. (2020). Fear Appeal Arguments. In: Fallacies in Medicine and Health. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-28513-5_4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-28513-5_4

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