Table of Contents

General Contexts

Intrapersonal Communication (Persuasion)

Interpersonal Communication

Small Group Communication

Organizational Communication

Intercultural Communication

Mass Communication

Applied Contexts

Health Communication

Instructional Communication

Honors Capstone Home Page

Last updated February 19, 2001


Click Here to Go Back to Health Context Page


Explanation of Theory:

The Fear Appeals Theory states that fear motivates  individuals to take action to reduce their apprehension about health issues.

Theorist: Kim Witte

Date:  1992

Primary Article:

   Witte, K: Preventing AIDS through persuasive communications:  A framework for
constructing effective, culturally-specific, preventive health messages.  Intercultural
Community Ann 16:67, 1992.

Individual Interpretations:

As a theory, Fear Appeals explains how fear can be used as a motivator for  positive behavior, a reaction, or even lifestyle change.  This theory is very useful among those who must persuade others to make a change in their life when they really do not want to.

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Based on the metatheoretical assumptions, Fear Appeals is a humanistic theory. Epistemologically, the theory holds multiple truths, because what may invoke fear in one individual may not be true for another.  A situation may have to be more serious for some than others before fear can become a factor in the decisions they make to protect themselves or prevent negative consequences from occurring due to the threat to their health or well being.  Ontologically, fear appeals theory is based on free will.  An individual decides when fear has become the motivator for action to protect themselves. This level of fear is not pre-determined and  is different for everyone, however, the individual chooses to take action based on the fear they feel.  Axiologically, the theory can move from value conscious to value laden, as an individual’s values may determine
the level of fear they feel as well as the action they take to protect themselves from future
harm or danger.


   According to the Farrell’s Criteria for a useful humanistic theory, Fear Appeals has analytic consistency because one can easily see how Witte originated this theory based on what motivates people to take action regarding their health when fear is
present or is a variable in the situation.  Fear Appeals also has intuitive credibility because it clearly explains a relevant issue in health communication.  This theory can be applied in health communication between physicians and patients and can also be applied in relationships, such as parent/child or teacher/student, which also gives the theory heuristic value.

Ideas and Implications:

Those who work with people who are placing themselves or others at risk due to harmful behavior, usually need more incentive to stop such behavior than those who are easily influenced. The use of fear to illustrate very real consequences to destructive behavior is at times the only way to encourage change.


Jamie is twenty five years old and has a very active sex life with multiple partners.  Jamie’s close friends lead similar lifestyles, as they want to experience life to
the fullest before they have to “settle down”.  Over the years, some of Jamie’s friends
have contracted sexually transmitted diseases because they do not always practice safe
sex.  Jamie does not practice safe sex either on a regular basis, but has been lucky and only contracted a curable disease once.  One of Jamie’s friends was recently diagnosed with AIDS and is now suffering a slow painful death.  Watching a close friend die is very
agonizing for Jaime, and invokes a fear of death and suffering from this senseless disease.  Jaime remembers being constantly warned about the dangers of unprotected sex, especially with multiple partners, and never taking heed to the warnings, thinking “it
could never happen to me.”  Living through the tragic experience of their friend’s suffering and eventual death makes the group of friends vow to always practice safe sex, reduce their number of partners, and get tested for HIV and AIDS on a regular basis. 
The Fear Appeals theory maintains that it was Jamie’s fear of contracting a deadly disease and suffering that motivated a behavior change. Witte states that fear
motivates an individual to take action- drastic or otherwise- to reduce their level of fear,
and one can see that Jamie and the group of friends used their fear as motivation to change their actions and lifestyles.

Relevant Research:

      Janis, IL:  Effects of fear arousal on attitude change:  Recent developments in theory and experimental research, in Berkowitz L (ed.) :  Advances in Experimental
Social Psychology (Vol. 3). New York, Academic Press, 1967, 166.

      Leventhal, H:  Findings and theory in the study of fear communications, in Berkowitz, L (ed.): Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 5). New York, Academic Press, 1970, 119.

      Rogers, R.W., Mewborn, C.R.:  Fear appeals and attitude change:  Effects of a threat’s noxiousness, probability of occurrence, and the efficacy of the coping responses.
J Pers Soc Psychol 34;54, 1976.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. N/A

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. N/A

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. N/A 

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A