Centre for Behaviour Change


New Publication!

23 March 2023

"The UK government’s attempt to frighten people into covid protective behaviours was at odds with its scientific advice" at the BMJ.



The scientific literature shows that fear is generally an ineffective way of persuading people to engage in health protective behaviours

Among the many revelations from recent leaked UK Government WhatsApp messages published by The Daily Telegraph is the fact that Matt Hancock, former health secretary, proposed using fear in order to get the public to comply with covid-19 restrictions. In December 2020, he wrote that “we must frighten the pants off everyone with the new strain.” In January 2021, Hancock discussed how to increase levels of mask wearing and worried that minor interventions would have little impact. The cabinet secretary, Simon Case replied: “I think that is exactly right. Small stuff looks ridiculous. Ramping up messaging—the fear/guilt factor vital.

These revelations seem to confirm what many had been arguing for two years: that the UK government aimed to control the public through use of fear. We will leave aside the ethical and political dimensions of this argument for now in order to concentrate on the science. Both the government and The Telegraph accept the effectiveness of fear appeals—the one to extol it, the other to decry it. Both presuppose that fear is an effective way of controlling people. However, the scientific literature tells a very different story. It shows that frightening people is generally an ineffective way of persuading them to engage in health protective behaviours.

It is true that people have to perceive that there is threat before they will take protective actions in a pandemic, including the covid-19 pandemic. So it is critical that people have a realistic understanding of what confronts them. Where they underestimate the risk, that needs to be tackled."

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