When fear fails to motivate

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the ways in which teachers communicate with young learners can have a significant impact on academic outcomes. For some years now, studies have supported the assertions made by Carol Dweck that the way in which we praise young learners dictates (or at least influences) the mindset those young learners later adopt – effort praise encourages a growth mindset while ability praise is more likely to result in a fixed mindset (see, for example, Lam, Yim and Ng, 2008; Halmovitz and Henderlong Corpus, 2011).


Recent research has also suggested that certain motivational strategies may be backfiring due to the manner in which such strategies are communicated. David Putwain (Edge Hill) and Richard Remedios (Durham) have discovered that so-called ‘fear appeals’ might be having the opposite effect on motivation than the one intended. Fear appeals are messages that in some way elicit fear in the student with the purpose of motivation. Fear appeals tend to concentrate on the consequences of success and failure, the importance of academic credentials (that is, qualifications) and the threat that lack of motivation will ultimately jeopardise future aspirations and limit choices (Putwain & Remedios, 2014)

Putwain and Remedios invite the reader to consider the following messages:

“If you fail GCSE maths, you will never be able to get a good job or go to college. You need to work hard in order to avoid failure”

“GCSE maths is really important as most jobs that pay well require GCSE maths, and if you want to go to college you will need a pass in GCSE maths. It’s really important to try your hardest”.

The first message constitutes a fear appeal because it’s based on avoiding failure. The second message, on the other hand, is based on success – it isn’t a fear appeal.

In their study (involving 347 year 11 pupils) Putwain and Remedios found that a higher frequency of fear appeals that were seen as threatening resulted in lower self-determined behaviour (so-called intrinsic motivation, of which I have written previously) and, consequently, lower examination performance. These negative consequences appear to be related to the ‘failure’ emphasis of the fear appeal.

What struck me the most from this study was the realisation that I was prone to fear appeals. Certainly, during this time of year when my sixth form students are heavily engaged in revision, I find myself using the terms ‘fail’ and ‘failure’ far more often than I would like (especially with ‘certain’ pupils). It also brought home the importance of communication and the way in which I communicate attempts at motivation – which is perhaps more symptomatic of my own anxiety over their possible failure than anything else.

Putwain and Remedios conclude by appealing to teachers to have a greater awareness of how those statements we so often use to motivate ‘can unwittingly promote lower self-determined motivation’.

Lam, Shui-fong, Yim, Pui-shan, Ng, Yee_lam (2008) Is effort praise motivational? The role of beliefs in the effort–ability relationship Contemporary Educational Psychology 33 4 p.694-710
Halmovitz, K and Hederlong Corpus, J (2011) Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation: stability and change in emerging adulthood Educational Psychology 31 5 p.595-609
Putwain, D., & Remedios, R. (2014). The scare tactic: Do fear appeals predict motivation and exam scores? School Psychology Quarterly: The Official Journal of the Division of School Psychology, American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/spq0000048



3 thoughts on “When fear fails to motivate

  1. Pingback: Motivation, Learning and Memory (Part 1). | Psych(ed)

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