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How Effective are Scare Tactics?

Updated on August 5, 2013
A tour of a prison may inclde a pat down.
A tour of a prison may inclde a pat down. | Source

Scare tactics can be used for altercations as minor as not going to bed on time to as serious as drunk driving. One common thread in any of these, is the believability factor. If someone stands before you and tells you to do something because it isn't good for you, you may or may not listen. But if someone has experienced it, especially with devastating results, tells you why it's not a good idea to do whatever it is you are doing, you are going to be a whole lot more likeIy to listen and hopefully, heed.

Scared Straight

Probably the most well known example of of using scare tactics came in the form of a 1978 documentary called Scared Straight. The film was made about a prison program that allowed hard core prisonesr to "talk" to juvenile delinquents. The idea was to scare them straight. The film was controversial as the tactics were unfiltered and harsh.

In addition to this, part of the actual program was to have inmates visit high schools and give a mini, diluted version for students there. Most county jails also offer a "tour." The students are not spared any abusive language and the guards do not treat them as visitors but as future clients.While these methods may not work for all kids, they DO help keep many away from crime.

Using Scare Tactics Wisely

For scare tactics to be effective, they should not be used for every little thing. Yes, it is true that not doing your homework can result in an unpleasant situation but end up as abum on the street is probably not the most effective scare tactic to use! Does this sound farfetched to you? It does to me but I have heard parents go through the litany of horrifying things that can happen to a kid if they don't do their homework. Halfway through, the kids have stopped listening and are thinking about bing anywhere but there! More effective would be a simple, natural consequence. If you don't do your homework, your grade will be lowered. Keep things in perspective. When they get older, they will begin to understand the long term consequences. Remember that if you try to hard to scare them out of every little thing, you may not be taken seriously. They may get used to tuning you out and not hear the critical message.

Scared Straight

Scared Straight 20 years later.

The video to the right is a short clip with some of the students from the original Scared Straight documentary. It is interesting to hear what they say about the experience and how much impact it had on them.While they clearly remember the prisoner they reunite with, the details they talk about are what he looked like. They do not say how he helped them stay out of jail. In fact, in a study of nine Scared Straight programs conducted by the Campbell Collaboration, there was actually and increase of crime by about 28%.

What do you think?

Do you believe in using Scare Tactics to teach a lesson?

See results

How believable is the scenario?

If we go back to homework scenario, I once heard a parent tell their child they would be a homeless, unlovable bum by the time they were thirty if they didn't start improving their study skills. They went through the list like this:You won't know how to study.

  • You won't know how to study.
  • Your grades will get worse.
  • You won't graduate.
  • You won't get into college.
  • No one will hire you.
  • You will have to live on the street.
  • No one will want to marry you.

What is wrong with this scenario? Aside from the fact that you have just completely trampled on your child's self esteem, do you really think that a 10 year old is going to hear all this and say , "Well then, I better do my homework!?" More than likely, they will be saying, "Uh-oh, here they go again!"

Fear should not be the only method to Modify Behavior.

We all know the age old question. Are you more upset because you were (you fill in the crime) or because you got caught? How often have you wondered that? I believe that using fear to stop an action can also be ambiguous. The fear may stop someone momentarily.. It can be effective to stop a behavior or an action, and once we no longer see signs of that action, there is a tendency to just leave it at that. It may also just encourage them to be more discreet about what they are doing. The use of extreme or misdirected fear may also just confuse the situation.

There are some lessons that need to pack a punch. How many times have you heard, "Don't drive and text?" Yet, you still see so many people talking and texting while driving. What does it take to get some people to stop? You can reason, beg and cajole but often, people need to be faced with the stark reality of the consequences of their actions before they will even consider stopping. Remember the American Cancer Society Ads? Seeing a poster of a man smoking through he larynx because he had mouth cancer was a good deterrent for many but we can't forget the "it's not going to happen to me factor." It seems that what is needed is a combination of fear and reality.

Texting and Driving

The use of Public Announcements

There have been some very impactful commenrcials through the years that appeal to our "What if that was me?"I have included a few here.They employ a more subtle form of fear. They show what can happen if you do the offending action. They don't stand up and yell at you. They simply show you in a way that is effective and,because of the extremity of the results, frightening.

My advice if you choose to use fear to educate, use realistic and measureable results. Don't give them the litany of what will happen 10 or 20 years from now. Show them why it needs to happen now and teach them skills to make the right decisions.

Don't miss this one!


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    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      5 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      I cannot agree with you more. Fear is interesting because it usually works on the well behaved kids who have have a fear of disappointing: parents, teachers and authority figures.

      Kids who are already in trouble, tend to resent fear and react negatively to it.

      Thank you so much for your comment and welcome to my page!

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 

      5 years ago from Georgia

      I opened and ran a women's residential recovery home for more than 20 years. I was approached by juvenile probation to bring some of the volunteer younger women (18-24) who would talk to the teenagers.

      These women did have a specific agenda - scare them straight, nor use fear as a motivator. I had told them that they would be most effective by simply talking about their own illusions and deceptions that they would not get caught, they would not get addicted, or they would not experience negative consequences. I think what made these so powerful in terms of guidance or cautionary advice, was that the adult giving the advice was not that much older than the young adult getting it.

      In the field of addiction, we know the benefits of peer experiece, strength and hope when tyring to influence changes.

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Chris! Yes, I love that video!

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      6 years ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Up, awesome, useful and shared on my fb page for writers.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      6 years ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Randi, excellent hub. Thanks for including the video at the end.

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you so much, Pamela! I appreciate your comments!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      You really showed a lot of insight in this hub, and I don't think scare tactics usually work. Consequences for behavior if it is an appropriate consequence seemed to help with my boys. Yelling at them and telling them they are worthless is a terrible way to raise a child. Excellent hub about an important problem.

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Eddy :) Have a wonderful day and almost weekend!

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      A brilliant hub Randi and voting up plus sharing. Enjoy your day.


    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Leslie, leslie, leslie....nice to see you here! I do agree with you, a little fear probably never hurt anyone. I am not above using it when necessary and , of course, a little guilt (as it is my birthright!) My only objection to fear is when it doesn't fit the situation. I actually wrote this in response to something ridiculous that happened in Cinncinati recently. They have since retacted and apologised but I warmed to the topic!

      Thank you, my dear for your comments, votes and


    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Welcome to my hubpage, mbwalz! Thank you for your insightful comment. Parenting is by teaching and setting a good example. It is often a balancing act! Thank you so much for your vote and share! I look forward to reading your hubs!

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Joelle! I agree, the fear should fit the situation. A little "Oh no, you're going to get in trouble" never hurt anyone!

      I really love that video, too! It gets me every time I watch it!

      You have a great week as well!

    • ImKarn23 profile image

      Karen Silverman 

      6 years ago

      My daddy's best advice to me was that i was 'flushing my life down the toilet'..

      It didn't scare me, but, it certainly didn't motivate me to reach for the stars, either!

      I believe in scare tactics, when they're necessary and realistic. Folks these days are so adverse to a healthy dose of FEAR! FEAR is not necessarily a bad thing. most of us experienced it as children in some positive manners.

      Didn't we have a healthy 'fear' of the stove? Traffic? Sometimes even a spanking?

      a healthy dose of fear keeps folks safe - and respectful.

      excellent and thought provoking Randi!


    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 

      6 years ago from Maine

      Good article. Parenting sure is a difficult thing and authoritarian parenting often backfires. What works for people who go into the military will not be helpful for your aspiring computer graphics designer or doctor.

      I agree with the first comment. As a parent you must always ask, "why are they behaving this way?" But you must also be willing to listen and act upon the truth. I've had some humble pie moments and have learned and become a better parent because of them. When your kids see you willing to be humble, apologize where necessary, and change, it sets a very good example for them. And isn't that what parenting is all about - teaching?

      Voted up and shared!

    • kidscrafts profile image


      6 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      What a great hub, Randy! Each child respond differently to different tactics. I think positive reinforcement is the best way to go. Fear of what thinks might turn in 10 or 20 years... is way too far for kids.

      I love the symbolism in your last video with the seat belt! This publicity is pure genius, it's powerful, it's artistic and very well presented!

      Thanks for sharing!

      Enjoy your week!


    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you so much, drbj! Your comments and vote are so appreciated!

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you so much, Mary! I love that: 2 parts love+1 part reasoning+ 1 part fear. You are so right that each child is different and responds differently! Thank you for the votes up!

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Bill. You are, unfortunately correct that we are fear based. Worse, we are often taught to fear the punishment and not the crime!

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Jackie! I love that commercial, too! It doesn't get old for me! Thank you so much for the votes!

    • btrbell profile imageAUTHOR

      Randi Benlulu 

      6 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Thank you, Theater girl! I think you are right that prevention is the best method, then if all else fails, I'm not above using a little fear!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      6 years ago from south Florida

      Your entire hub, Randi, is an important message that we need to remind us of the effectiveness of using appropriate negative reinforcement. And the video you chose was the perfect visual to emphasize the message. Thank you. Voted Up.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      2 parts love + 1 part reasoning + 1 part fear = a POSSIBLE result.

      Each child is different, each situation is different but straight fear tactics, as you pointed out, tend to make children turn a deaf ear.

      That end video was amazing!

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good job, Randi. I taught for eighteen years, and I found that establishing mutual respect in a classroom went much further than establishing fear.

      With regards to our society, we are a fear-based society, and organizations and companies have been playing to that fear for decades now...and it works perfectly. :)

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Very good insight and I loved the seat belt commercial. Using family gave it double meaning. Voted interesting, awesome and useful.

    • Theater girl profile image


      6 years ago from New Jersey

      As a teacher, I try to prevent bad behavior first. That has always worked best for me....that said, a little fear can be healthy. It's all a balancing act though. And nothing works for every single child! Parenting taught me that too! Thanks for this read.


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