When ‘horror movie’ tactics fail to frighten


Enter Nestler and Egloff

Nestler and Egloff undertook two studies that considered the interaction between the threat level of safety messaging and the effect of those threats on individuals. In their first study, carried out in 2010, they explored the effectiveness of threat appeals in health and safety messages when delivered to those who are cognitively avoidant.

The study first tested participants to measure their cognitive traits and rated them as having high or low cognitive avoidance. Participants were then provided with two safety messages from fake news reports that linked caffeine consumption to a fictitious gastrointestinal disease called ‘xyelinenteritis’ and recommended that people should reduce their caffeine intake in response to this threat. The first version of the news report was a high-threat message as it linked xyelinenteritis to cancer and stated that the participant’s age group was particularly at risk. The second version of the news report was a low-threat message and did not include links to cancer or age group vulnerability. Once the participants had read the articles they were asked to rate their attitudes on reducing their caffeine consumption.

The results showed that when participants were presented with a high-threat message, those who had low cognitive avoidance were more likely to reduce caffeine intake than those who had high cognitive avoidance. Individuals who had high cognitive avoidance had judged the high-threat appeal to be less severe than the low-threat appeal and were less likely to reduce caffeine consumption.

Importantly, the highly cognitive avoidant participants were also more responsive to the low-threat appeals than participants with low cognitive avoidance. This result can be explained by the fact that people who are highly cognitive avoidant minimise threats as a coping mechanism and consequently will not be persuaded by a threat appeal’s recommendation. Therefore, for people who are cognitively avoidant, frightening health messages are, according to this 2010 study, counter-productive. Constantly repeating the same message (‘Be safe or die’) loses impact very quickly. 


New threat levels

In a subsequent study (2012), Nestler and Egloff varied not only the threat level, but also the efficacy level of the recommended action (how able the participant felt to effect a change in behaviour). This study demonstrated the effect of efficacy in health and safety messages when delivered to those who are cognitively avoidant.

Four versions of the fictitious news reports that linked caffeine consumption and an invented gastrointestinal disease were produced. Two high-threat versions linked xyelinenteritis to cancer and stated that the participant’s age group was particularly at risk, while the two low-threat messages omitted this information. The two high-efficacy versions recommended that a reduction in caffeine would result in a reduction of risk in contracting xyelinenteritis to a 15% likelihood, while the low-efficacy version recommended that even if caffeine consumption was reduced, the participant still had a 75% risk of contracting xyelinenteritis.

Results showed cognitive avoidance did not affect intention to change behaviour when the proposed action was ineffective. In low-efficacy conditions, all participants presented with a low-threat appeal were not motivated to adopt the recommended actions. When presented with a high-threat appeal, low cognitive avoidant participants engaged with the proposed solution, albeit to a lesser degree, whereas highly cognitive avoidant participants curtailed the processing of the threat and did not engage in the solution.

However, when the proposed action was effective, in high-efficacy conditions, low cognitive avoidant participants engaged with the proposed solution and were likely to change their behaviour, whereas highly cognitive avoidant participants curtailed the processing of the threat and judged the threat to be less severe. As expected, the results showed that all participants were more likely to adopt a recommended action if presented with a high-efficacy solution. However, results also showed that highly cognitive avoidant individuals will not change their behaviour, regardless of a solution’s efficacy. 

Beyond scaremongering

Those who champion scare tactics as a form of safety message often believe that such appeals will be successful if they contain a serious threat but also provide an effective means of avoiding it. Nestler and Egloff’s studies demonstrate that this is incorrect as not all people will respond to such a message in the same way. Instead of giving all individuals the same threat communications, messages should be individualised.

Business leaders like to see tangible data, positive outcomes and solutions-driven approaches. The furore of negative press coverage, threat to share price and impact upon employees are all far more realistic consequences of a safety incident than prison time. An educated director is likely to know already that the HSE prosecutes few individuals but may not have thought about the wider context of a serious incident. Indeed, research on the effects of message repetition suggested an inverted U-shaped relationship between the number of message repetitions and the attitude towards the message content (Reinhard et at, 2014).

Such ramifications can be explained without scaremongering, and in our experience the rise in corporate accountability lends itself to a more sensible, logical approach of setting out such messages within the realities of the current economic and regulatory climate. 

Safety messaging is essential for frontline workers too. It is common to find that long-standing employees who have done the same job for many years are more resistant to change – even where this is essential to protect their own health and safety. Complacency often sets in and, alongside it, high cognitive avoidance. Again, measured conversations about potential impact, examples of positive outcomes or seeking to positively engage individuals through awards and recognition for good safety behaviour will, in our experience, have far greater impact.

Paul Verrico is global head of Eversheds Sutherland’s EHS practice; Catherine Henney 
heads the Manchester H&S team

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