Disapproval potentially a powerful tool in public health campaigns

Avoidance of rejection and seeking approval are very strong motivators

The blare of a car horn drew my attention to an incident which had a lot to teach about fear. It was very relevant, I thought, to our public-health crisis in which fear of coronavirus is used to motivate us to behave safely.

Two young lads were cycling away from a car, laughing. It seemed obvious – because I have seen this before – that they had weaved their bicycles in front of the car and then away again to give the driver a fright and themselves a thrill.

The driver drove away, blaring his horn, they gave him two fingers and disappeared up a side road.

What motivated the boys? It was partly fear because thrill-seeking always involves doing something scary. Without the fear, what would be the point?


You can even get to like fear. Years ago, a person working with heroin addicts in recovery told me about one man who had given up the drug but still went out and mugged people because he needed the buzz.

So for me the first point about fear, as taught by our two cyclists, is that humans seek it out in ways that range from putting their lives at risk to watching scary movies.

Yes, fear is a great motivator in the animal kingdom, including ourselves, but we’re not always afraid of fear.

Also, what we are afraid of isn’t always what we ought to be afraid of. For many people, fear of penalty points provides a stronger motive for belting up while driving than the fear of being killed or injured in an accident.

Fear-based messages about speeding work less well in young male drivers than in other groups, as terrible road tragedies tell us.

This simply means that fear as a public-health motivator will work a lot of the time but not all the time.

Differences in the reactivity of the brain matter too. Some people are very susceptible to short-term spikes of fear, like that driver when the two bicycles appeared in front of his car. Others are less susceptible.

Some people are very susceptible to anxiety, that long-term, insidious, gnawing feeling we all know so well. Anxiety activates more parts of the brain – so if that driver starts to worry over and over about what might have happened if he hadn’t seen the boys in time, the anxiety will disrupt his peace of mind.

The public-health point in this is that those who are most susceptible to anxiety could suffer from worry and stress about Covid long after Covid no longer poses an immediate threat. Fear usually passes; anxiety often sticks around.

So when we have a vaccine, the public-health message needs to change to reassure people that the vaccine will take the threat away.

Feeling the fear

To me one of the most interesting aspects of the use of fear to change behaviour is that if you don’t feel the fear you won’t make the change.

For instance, coming up to 2008 many of us knew intellectually, in my opinion, that a crash was on the way. But we didn’t actually feel the fear until the crash came, so we failed to act in time.

We know intellectually that the planet is in a degree of danger that makes the pandemic look like a mild rehearsal. But most of us, I would suggest, don’t actually feel the fear so we are resistant to such measures as carbon taxes.

If you don’t fear that the novel coronavirus could kill or disable you then your motivation to socially distance or wear a mask will be weak.

In my view we need to add another wing to the public-health message: social approval versus disapproval.

We are social creatures. The avoidance of rejection and the seeking of approval are very strong motivators.

If refusal to wash your hands, wear a mask or keep your distance brought social disapproval some, I believe, would fall in line who currently can’t be bothered.

Who knows: the prospect of public disapproval might have stopped that now-notorious dinner from taking place.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)