Perceived Efficacy, Conscious Fear of Death and Intentions to Tan: Not All Fear Appeals are Created Equal

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Objectives: According to the terror management health model, conscious thoughts of death motivate productive health behaviours when the targeted behaviour is perceived as an effective route for mitigating the threat and removing death‐related thought from focal awareness. The present study thus examined whether messages manipulating the efficacy of a health behaviour moderate health outcomes when participants are presented with a fear appeal that makes death thought conscious.

Design: A 3 (fear appeal: cancer vs. appearance vs. neutral) × 2 (delay vs. no delay) × 2 (effective vs. non‐effective) between‐subjects ANOVA was conducted.

Methods: Beach patrons were randomly assigned to a cancer, appearance, or neutral‐threat fear appeal followed by a delay or no delay. Subsequently, they read messages highlighting the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of sun protection behaviours and reported their intentions to engage in those behaviours.

Results: When fear appeals primed conscious thoughts of death, framing sun protection as ineffective decreased sun protection intentions relative to framing sun protection as effective. In contrast, fear appeals that did not consciously prime death, or appeals followed by a delay that allowed thoughts of death to fade from consciousness, did not interact with efficacy messages.

Conclusions: The findings revealed that messages impacting sun protection efficacy moderated sun protection intentions only when death was conscious. The findings have implications for understanding the conditions that render certain fear appeals, and accompanying messages of efficacy, more influential than others.

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British Journal of Health Psychology, v. 19, issue 1, p. 1-15