Neuroscientific evidence for defensive avoidance of fear appeals

Int J Psychol. 2014 Apr;49(2):80-8. doi: 10.1002/ijop.12036. Epub 2014 Jan 27.


Previous studies indicate that people respond defensively to threatening health information, especially when the information challenges self-relevant goals. The authors investigated whether reduced acceptance of self-relevant health risk information is already visible in early attention allocation processes. In two experimental studies, participants were watching high- and low-threat health commercials, and at the same time had to pay attention to specific odd auditory stimuli in a sequence of frequent auditory stimuli (odd ball paradigm). The amount of attention allocation was measured by recording event-related brain potentials (i.e., P300 ERPs) and reaction times. Smokers showed larger P300 amplitudes in response to the auditory targets while watching high-threat instead of low-threat anti-smoking commercials. In contrast, non-smokers showed smaller P300 amplitudes during watching high as opposed to low threat anti-smoking commercials. In conclusion, the findings provide further neuroscientific support for the hypothesis that threatening health information causes more avoidance responses among those for whom the health threat is self-relevant.

Keywords: ERPs; defensiveness; fear appeals; health information; smoking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking
  • Attention
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Behavior Control / methods*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Fear*
  • Female
  • Health Education / methods*
  • Health Promotion / methods*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Persuasive Communication
  • Reaction Time
  • Safe Sex
  • Smoking