Not Your Mother’s Scare Tactics: The Changing Landscape of Fear-based Messaging Research

SAMHSA’s CAPT, October 2016

Since the 1960s, substance misuse prevention practitioners have relied heavily on scare tactics and fear-based messages as core elements of prevention programming. Focused on eliciting an emotional response, these messages have historically been moralistic in nature, exaggerating the harmful effects of substance use and often failing to include factual information about the dangers of use. Moreover, most messages have focused entirely on abstinence rather than on reducing rates of misuse or the harmful consequences of use.
Though practitioners often turn to this type of messaging reflexively, a significant body of evidence suggests that scare tactics and fear-based approaches have not been effective in preventing substance misuse and, in some cases, have contributed to increased rates of use. Much of what is known about the ineffectiveness of scare tactics, however, stems from research conducted more than 20 years ago.

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