If you’ve seen the recent viral video discouraging us from texting while driving, or the quit-smoking commercials that feature surgeries showing organs damaged by smoking, then you may find yourself wondering if these gruesome images actually cause us to change our behavior?
Social psychologists have asked the same question and have found a variety of results. When considering the persuasiveness of a message we have to consider the message itself, the audience watching it, and the context in which it is delivered. Messages that have graphic images have been shown to be effective in producing behavior change, but only if there is a message attached to the images about what a person can do. For example, quit-smoking messages are more likely to produce a change in behavior if they are accompanied with information about smoking cessation programs or a phone number to call to get help.
In addition, characteristics of the audience have to be considered. Self-esteem has shown to be influential in determining whether a person will actually follow through on change, but it can depend on a variety of other factors as well.
Finally, we have to consider the context in which the message is received. Major catastrophic events, such as 9/11, can enact a variety of policies and changes that influence how we perceive messages. There are even more recent theories, such as Terror Management Theory, that suggest that making our own mortality salient can powerfully influence our behavior and attitudes.
Can you think of examples where threat, fear, and mortality are used as persuasive devices in order to motivate people to engage in a particular behavior? In what ways could politicians or healthcare providers, for example, make use of these findings?