When Fright Bites Back

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The Chronicle of Higher Education reports research suggesting that dramatizing the risks of alcohol abuse



can actually trigger a defensive coping mechanism that permits people to mentally distance themselves from the serious consequences of drinking too much. And that causes them to drink even more.

"Advertisements are capable of bringing forth feelings so unpleasant that we're compelled to eliminate them by whatever means possible," said Adam Duhachek, an Indiana University marketing professor and co-author of the study. "This motivation is sufficiently strong to convince us we're immune to certain risks."

Could this also apply to anti-smoking campaigns, like the controversial advertisements recently proposed in France? Or graphic scenes of automobile accidents and their casualties? We know that negative political advertising hurts the sponsor as well as the target. Could scare advertising, even in the best of causes, have unintended negative health consequences by reinforcing a more fearful view of the world? Another recent study, cited by the Psychology Today cognitive science blogger Dr. Art Markman, observes

that a cigarette warning that highlights that cigarettes may cause death could actually backfire. When someone identifies strongly as a smoker, then a warning that focuses on mortality can threaten that person's self-esteem. Because they identify strongly as a smoker, the easiest way to boost their self-esteem is to increase their favorable attitude toward cigarettes.

Conclusion: Negative public health campaigns, however noble the cause, should be evaluated for side effects.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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