Using fear to increase the uptake of preventative health behaviours is a longstanding practice, which could be useful in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. However, the impact of fear campaigns beyond behavioural outcomes has rarely been considered. It is possible that these threatening health messages could heighten health-related anxiety by inducing a tendency to interpret ambiguous stimuli in a threatening manner. This research aimed to evaluate the effects of fear-based articles about COVID-19, on intentions to adhere to mitigation measures and interpretation bias—a core maintenance factor in health anxiety.
Two pilot studies were conducted with the aim of validating our novel COVID-related measures and assessing engagement with the threat manipulation. Following this, 375 community members were recruited through social media for the main study. Participants were then randomly allocated to read an article about COVID which was manipulated on both threat and efficacy. After reading the article, participants then completed measures of interpretation bias and intentions to engage in COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Although the threatening articles consistently produced greater COVID-related threat, they only generated a stronger interpretation bias in the first pilot study. Importantly, threat-based communications failed to enhance intentions to perform mitigation measures in any of the studies. Likewise, reading an article which bolstered self-efficacy did not increase intentions, compared to reading a low efficacy article.
This research suggests that fear appeals are unlikely to increase intentions to perform COVID-related mitigation measures.