Many researchers, marketers, and politicians employ fear appeal messages in order to evoke a change in attitudes, intentions, or behaviors from their target audiences. The Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM; Witte, 1992), which was extended from Leventhal’s (1970) Parallel Process Model and influenced by Rogers’ (1975) Protection Management Theory (PMT), seeks to explain fear appeal message acceptance and rejection processes.
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According to the EPPM, when individuals are exposed to a fear appeal message that depicts a particular threat they undergo a two-step appraisal process. First, individuals appraise the threat from the fear appeal message. If the threat is perceived as low (i.e., the threat is irrelevant or insignificant), then individuals will not be motivated to process the message further and will simply ignore the fear appeal. If the individuals’ appraisals of the threat results in a moderate to high level of perceived threat (i.e., individuals believe they are highly susceptible to a relevant and serious threat), feelings of fear will be elicited and individuals will be motivated to begin the second appraisal. The second appraisal involves individuals’ evaluation of efficacy of the recommended response described in the fear appeal message.
The EPPM posits that when the perceived threat and perceived efficacy are high, danger control processes are initiated. In other words, when individuals believe the threat is serious and applicable to their lives (e.g., people with obesity who believe developing heart disease is highly likely given their unhealthy lifestyles) and the threat could easily be prevented (e.g., people with obesity who believe making small changes to their lifestyles would dramatically decrease the probability of a heart attack and would be easy to execute), individuals will be motivated to avert the threat through adaptive, possibly life-saving, behaviors (e.g., people with obesity eating healthier and exercising regularly). Because danger control processes are cognitive processes, they address the danger of the threat and lead to fear appeal message acceptance.
In contrast, when perceived threat is high, but perceived efficacy is low, fear control processes are initiated. In other words, if individuals believe the threat is serious, but do not believe they would be capable of preventing it (e.g., people with obesity who believe they could never change their diets or find the time to exercise or they have already done too much damage to their bodies for small changes to be impactful), individuals will be motivated to cope with their fear through maladaptive, possible life-threatening, behaviors (e.g., people with obesity who deny being overweight or at risk for heart disease and, thus, continue to eat unhealthy foods without exercising). Because fear control processes are primarily emotional processes, they address the fear, not the danger, that the threat induces and lead to fear appeal message rejection. This critique of the EPPM will demonstrate that the theory is neither internally consistent nor falsifiable.
Falsifiability is the logical possibility that a statement could be shown false by empirical evidence. If evidence is incapable of demonstrating instances when a theory is false, or wrong, not much value can be attributed to that theory. In other words, if a theory claims to be right under every circumstance and, thus, explain everything, it is really a theory that explains nothing. There are two indicators of a theory’s unfalsifiability: (a) the theory appears to be circular (i.e., even when outcomes are not specified, the reason for the outcome can always be explained) or (b) the theory claims two contradictory outcomes (e.g., both positive and negative outcomes).
The EPPM is unfalsifiable because it is both circular and contradictory. First, the theory’s overall goal is to explain the circumstances when fear appeal messages work (i.e., messages are accepted through danger control processes) and when they do not work (i.e., messages are rejected through fear control processes). Right from the onset, this theory attempts to explain two contradictory outcomes and one might argue that, in turn, the theory does not explain much at all. In addition, no matter which outcome the theory is able to evidence, it would never be wrong.
Consider this example: researchers might expose people with obesity to a fear appeal message that depicts the severity and causes of heart attacks in overweight individuals and recommends a change in diet and regular exercise to prevent heart problems. If, at the end of the study, participants report that they started eating healthier and exercising regularly, researchers could claim the intent of their study was to explain message acceptance processes. If, on the other hand, participants report that they did not change their diets or exercise more frequently researchers could claim the intent of their study was to explain message rejection processes. Thus, researchers have two contradictory explanations for either outcome that they can use in validating their hypotheses, which confirms the theory’s falsifiability.
Second, the EPPM claims that, when a threat depicted in a fear appeal message does not evoke fear, individuals will neither undergo the two-step appraisal process nor enact the message’s recommended response. This scope condition alone does not make the theory unfalsifiable. However, the theory also posits that individuals’ threat perceptions must reach a certain threshold before individuals will be motivated to consider health protective action (i.e., adaptive behaviors). This element contributes to the theory’s unfalsifiability because it offers researchers a justification when the model does not unequivocally validate their hypotheses. In other words, if individuals do not enact the recommended response in proximity to viewing the message, researchers could explain this by saying the individuals simply need additional exposure to the fear appeal message, or a different message in which the threat is intensified, in order for their threat perceptions to reach the necessary threshold, at which time fear will be aroused and they will be motivated to eliminate it through the two-step appraisal process.
Reflecting back on the previous example, suppose the fear appeal message that depicted the threat of a heart attack did not elicit fear in the participants with obesity. To justify their results, researchers could simply explain that their participants need to be exposed to the message multiple times or exposed to a new message that intensifies the severity of heart attacks, in order to for them to perceive a high threat and feel motivated to enact the recommended response. In this sense, the EPPM’s wrongness could never be demonstrated because researchers would always have an alternative explanation to validate their hypotheses if fear is not evoked immediately. To avoid these falsifiability pitfalls, researchers must explicitly state a priori predictions (i.e., whether they are using the model to explain fear appeal message acceptance or rejection and how soon after exposing participants to the message they anticipate fear to develop) before employing the EPPM to validate their hypotheses.
A theory is considered internally consistent when its concepts, definitions, and propositions present a systematic view about a phenomenon; are clear, sensible, and coherent; and do not contradict one another. Researchers find it easier to describe, explain, predict, and control when working with internally consistent theories compared to those that are internally inconsistent.
The EPPM is lacking internal consistency because its unclear and contradictory propositions impede the theory’s ability to present a organized and methodical view of the fear appeal process, which may confuse researchers who attempt to employ the theory in their research. First, many of the propositions and concepts are unclear and incoherent. As mentioned previously, the EPPM states that individuals must perceive a moderate to high level, or threshold, of threat in order for danger control processes to occur. The originator’s lack of measurable specificity for the perceived threat threshold (i.e., a numerical expression of the threshold that could be compared to individuals’ perceived threat level) hinders the model’s internal consistency and, perhaps consequently, its testability.
In addition, the theory outlines the workings of danger control processes (i.e., Propositions 2 and 3), yet fails to clearly address the fear control processes in its propositions. When the theory does hint at fear control processes (Propositions 4 and 7), the claims are unclear and inconsistent. For example, Proposition 4 introduces a “boomerang” concept that is not explained anywhere else in the model. Although this concept can be identified by analyzing the context of its placement, the theory more frequently uses maladaptive behaviors to describe this concept. Thus, because these concepts are not consistently defined throughout the theory’s explication, its overall coherency is compromised.
Second, some of the theory’s propositions contradict one another. For example, the EPPM states that individuals can experience fear in danger control processes, which are primarily cognitive process where individuals evaluate their susceptibility to the threat, the severity of the threat, their ability to perform the recommended response, and the effectiveness of the response. In addition, the theory claims individuals can experience thoughts in fear control processes, which are primarily automatic, unconscious, and emotional processes in which people respond to and cope with their fear, not the danger. Not only does it seem unrealistic that individuals could be simultaneously involved in both processes (i.e., deliberately thinking about ways to change their behavior to prevent a threat from occurring and engaging in unproductive behaviors as a mechanism to cope with the fear itself), these two statements are contradictory, which contributes to the theory’s lack of internal consistency.
In addition, Propositions 10 and 11 state “cognitions about efficacy are unrelated to maladaptive responses” and “cognitions about threat are indirectly related to maladaptive responses,” respectively. However, the theory also claims high threat/high efficacy lead to danger control processes, which lead to adaptive behaviors, and high threat/low efficacy lead to fear control processes, which lead to maladaptive behaviors. If threat perceptions are static and it’s the fluctuation of efficacy that determines which processes and behaviors will develop, how can Propositions 10 and 11 claim cognitions about efficacy are completely unrelated to maladaptive behaviors? Witte (1994) was unable to find complete support for her prediction that perceived threat would be unrelated to message rejection in regards to AIDS prevention because she found that, as threat perceptions decreased, participants were more likely to engage in defense avoidance and message minimization (i.e., message rejection behaviors). To that end, it seems contradictory that the theory would claim cognitions about threat are only indirectly related to maladaptive responses (i.e., a result of message rejection). In addition, as previously discussed, the theory also states individuals can experience fear in danger control processes and thoughts in fear control processes. This only further contradicts Propositions 10 and 11 and validates the theory’s lack of internal consistency.
One might argue that EPPM’s heurism implies the theory is internally consistent and falsifiable. However, it could also be argued that, because the majority of the published research based on the EPPM has been done solely by Witte or Witte and her colleagues/students, the theory is not truly heuristic. In other words, despite Witte’s diligence to promote her theory and encourage other communication scholars, albeit those who studied under her, to utilize the theory in their research, few outsiders have utilized the theory, which may be due to the flaws in the theory mentioned previously.
In summary, this critique demonstrated that the EPPM is unfalsifiable due to its circular and contradictory claims and internally inconsistent due to its unclear and contradictory propositions.