Date of Award

January 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Carol Liebler


Fear Appeals, Privacy, Security, Terrorism

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This study investigates the relationship between fear and privacy by using the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) to examine whether there is an association between fear appeals and the willingness to allow increased governmental surveillance of online and phone communications. Research suggests that, in the United States, privacy is important. Moreover, courts have inferred privacy rights in the U.S. Constitution, including protection from intrusions by the government. However, the threat of terrorism is also very real. There are indications that some people may be willing to allow intrusion by the government if it means keeping them safe. This study uses an experimental method to determine whether the fear of terrorism is stronger than the need to keep private communications secure from the government. EPPM is a predominate theory in the area of fear appeals and persuasion. Scholars indicate that the EPPM can predict whether a persuasive message will be successful based on the levels of threat and efficacy. The underlining assumption of the theory is that if a person feels fear, that person will take some sort of action to alleviate the fear. EPPM research suggests that, in order to persuade, a fear appeal message must contain language that accentuates a high threat and high efficacy to combat the threat. According to the theory, if a person perceives a high threat and high efficacy (i.e., feels he or she has the ability to overcome the threat by taking the action proposed in the message), that person will be persuaded by the message. EPPM is used primarily in the field of health communication; however, this study takes a unique route by using EPPM to study attitudes and behaviors toward terrorism and privacy rights policies. This study used terrorism as the threat and offered two separate efficacy options. The first was allowing increased government surveillance, and the second was individual reporting of suspicious activity to police. The hypotheses based on EPPM were not supported in this study, meaning that there was no indication that the participants who read the fear appeal containing the high threat and high efficacy options were persuaded by the message. However, the results did offer evidence that a high pre-existing perception of the threat could make a fear appeal ineffective. The perceived terrorism threat severity level for all of the experimental groups, including the control group, were high, which left little room for the threat to be increased using a fear appeal. EPPM proposes that, in order to be persuaded, the perceived efficacy felt by the reader of the message must be able to surpass the perceived threat. In this case, it is likely that the perceived threat of terrorism is so high that the efficacy options provided could not overcome the threat. Moreover, the results provided evidence that type of efficacy offered in the fear appeal message is important.

This study also extends EPPM research by determining if there is a relationship between cognitive dissonance and rejection of a fear appeal message. Cognitive dissonance refers to inconsistencies between an individual’s beliefs and actions. The theory proposes that if an individual has an inconsistency in her beliefs and behaviors, it can lead to discomfort. The individual will want to alleviate the discomfort by reducing the dissonance, which could mean either changing beliefs or behaviors to make them consistent. This study proposed that the amount of dissonance a person’s feels when reading a fear appeal may affect whether the person accepts or rejects the message. The results showed that cognitive dissonance is a predictor of message rejection. The higher the amount of cognitive dissonance the participant felt when reading the fear appeal message, the more likely that participant was to reject the message. In fact, the results indicated that cognitive dissonance is a better predictor of message rejection than perceived threat and perceived efficacy combined. This finding suggests that cognitive dissonance should be considered when drafting a fear appeal message and that it should be included as a variable in the EPPM theoretical model.

Finally, this study investigated the relationship between cognitive dissonance and the privacy paradox theory. The privacy paradox theory refers to an inconsistency between a person’s beliefs and behaviors about privacy. The results indicated that there is a relationship between dissonance and the privacy paradox.


Open Access