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Appeal to fear in health care: appropriate or inappropriate?

Overview of attention for article published in Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, September 2017
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Appeal to fear in health care: appropriate or inappropriate?
Published in
Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, September 2017
DOI 10.1186/s12998-017-0157-8
Pubmed ID

J. Keith Simpson


This paper examines appeal to fear in general: its perceived positive aspects, its negative characteristics, its appropriate as well as its fallacious use. Appeal to fear is a commonly used marketing method that attempts to change behaviour by creating anxiety in those receiving a fearful message. It is regularly used in public health initiatives such as anti-smoking, anti-drunk driving campaigns as well as in hypertension awareness campaigns. Some chiropractors appear to use appeal to fear to promote subluxation awareness and thereby encourage the use of chiropractic treatment. Research supporting its use is equivocal; nevertheless, when used judiciously, appeal to fear probably has sufficient strengths to warrant its continued conditional use. When used to promote care for which there is no supporting evidence, its use is fallacious. Appeal to fear has been used in health promotion campaigns for sixty years or more with the intent of modifying behaviours. While there is evidence to suggest that appeal to fear may motivate some individuals to modify offending behaviour or adopt recommended behaviour there is growing resistance to the use of appeal to fear on ethical and psychological grounds. Using appeal to fear as a tool of persuasion can be valid or fallacious depending on the truth of the premises within the argument. When used to raise awareness about genuine health concerns such as smoking, drunk driving and hypertension appeal to fear is considered to be a valid approach with certain caveats. However, when appeal to fear, not based on evidence or reason, is used as motivator to get others to accept unnecessary interventions for unproven disorders, the use of appeal to fear is fallacious. In spite of the evidence against its use, it seems likely that appeal to fear will continue to be used in conjunction with other public awareness initiatives to modify recognized detrimental behaviours such as smoking and drunk driving as well as silent killers such as hypertension. However, when used to promote a treatment that has no evidentiary basis such as subluxation based practice in chiropractic the appeal to fear is a fallacy and must be stopped.

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Geographical breakdown

Country Count As %
Unknown 143 100%

Demographic breakdown

Readers by professional status Count As %
Student > Bachelor 29 20%
Student > Master 25 17%
Other 12 8%
Researcher 12 8%
Lecturer 5 3%
Other 16 11%
Unknown 44 31%
Readers by discipline Count As %
Nursing and Health Professions 26 18%
Psychology 24 17%
Medicine and Dentistry 15 10%
Social Sciences 10 7%
Neuroscience 4 3%
Other 14 10%
Unknown 50 35%