Scare Tactics Not Effective

The use of scare tactics has been traditional in alcohol education. The fact that it is generally ineffective has not discouraged its use since the time of the temperance movement.

However, research beginning in the 1930s has found that scare tactics tend to be ineffective and can be counterproductive. In "Defensive responses to an emotive anti-alcohol message" psychological researchers led by Dr. Stephen Brown of the University of Derby in the United Kingdom explore some of the possible reasons why messages that arouse emotional distress or discomfort tend to fail.

Fortunately, there are many non-discomforting techniques that have proven to be effective in reducing alcohol abuse. One of the many alternatives to scare tactics is the social norms approach. Rather than exaggerate the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse, the social norms approach provides accurate information about usage and consequences.

Students typically hold exaggerated beliefs about how many students really drink, how often they drink, and how much they drink. They tend to believe that "everyone's doing it" and feel pressure to conform to that undesirable behavior. When surveys of actual student behavior are conducted on campus and the actual, lower numbers are widely reported or marketed, people no longer feel the need to live up to some imagined false norm of behavior.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that the technique is effective, that it is relatively inexpensive to implement, and that the positive results tend to occur quickly.


  • Brown, S., et al. Defensive responses to an emotiveanti-alcohol message. Psychology and Health, 2009, 24(5), 517-528.