Motivating Emergency Preparedness Behaviors: The Effects of Guilt Appeals and Guilty Feelings

Download data and study materials from OSF

Principal investigator:

Monique Mitchell Turner

George Washington University


Homepage: Click here

Sample size: 721

Field period: 3/7/2008-3/17/2008


The continuing threat of terrorist attacks and natural disasters presents a unique challenge for health communication scholars and practitioners. One way to increase motivation is through the use of guilt appeals; yet, message designers must be aware of the potential negative consequences of employing messages that induce too much guilt. The current project seeks to differentiate the consequences of using guilt appeals from actually increasing feelings of guilt in the public. In a field experiment we investigate the use of guilt appeals within the context of disaster preparedness, with a nationally representative sample, to enhance attitudes, increase risk perceptions, and motivate behavioral intentions to prepare.


H1: There is a statistically significant relationship between intensity of the guilt appeal and feelings of guilt.

H2: As the intensity of the guilt appeal increases, feelings of anger toward the source of the message will increase.

H3: As guilty feelings increase, positive attitudes toward preparing (H3a), intentions to prepare (H3b), and risk perceptions about emergencies (H3c) should increase linearly.

H 4a,b,c: As feelings of anger toward the source of the message increase, positive attitude toward preparing (H4a), intentions to prepare (H4b), and risk perceptions about emergencies (H4c) should decrease linearly.

Experimental Manipulations

emotion (anger, guilt, fear) and intensity (low, moderate, high)


attitudes toward preparing, intentions to prepare, risk perceptions

Summary of Results

These data suggest that guilt appeals do affect the amount of guilt participants anticipated feeling if they did not take steps to prepare their family for an emergency. Consistent with O’Keefe’s meta-analysis, the guilt appeals had a linear effect on feelings of guilt (i.e., high guilt appeals did generate the most guilty feelings). What is notable is that the high intensity guilt appeal was also associated with the highest level of angry feelings toward the source of the message. These data suggest that feeling guilty does propel people toward intending to prepare for an emergency. Feelings of guilt were associated increased judgment of likelihood a terrorist attack would occur in the future, both in the United States and in one’s community. Additionally, feelings of guilt were significantly and positively correlated with attitude toward preparedness. Anticipated guilt and intention to prepare were positively correlated. Concurrently, feelings of anger at the source of the message and intention to prepare were negatively associated, demonstrating the important differentiation that must be made between perception of the appeal and elicited emotion. Careful segmentation of emotions must also be made. Feelings of anger “at the situation” of having to worry about emergency preparedness were significantly associated with feelings of guilt. This reveals the differentiation between actually reporting anticipated guilt and messages that attempt to create anticipated guilt.


Turner, M. M., & Underhill, J. C. (2009, May). Motivating emergency preparedness behaviors: The effects of guilt appeals and guilty feelings. Paper accepted to be presented at the convention of the International Communication Association, Chicago, IL.

Turner, M. M., & Underhill, J. C. (2008, December). Motivating emergency preparedness: The impact of fear and anger appeals on risk assessment. Paper presented at the Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting, Boston, MA.