Seeking rhetorical validity in fear appeal research: An application of rhetorical theory

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College of Business


A significant focus of behavioral security research has been on understanding employees’ motives for protecting sensitive assets. To date, theorizing efforts in this space have focused on appraisal processes and nomological models that are designed to capture the responses to the security threats articulated within fear appeals. Because fear appeals are persuasive messages used to generate a sense of urgency about a specific threat that influences protective information security behaviors, they are an important focus in behavioral security research. However, we suggest that theoretical guidance is needed to facilitate further research in this area. We argue that ultimately, fear appeals are treatments intended to serve as catalysts of behavioral change. Therefore, fear appeals should have rhetorical validity, which is a specialized form of ecological validity in which contextualization has been included to ensure that the language embedded in the stimulus is consistent with the threat environment and the expectations of its audience. The rhetorical validity of a fear appeal should account for its exigence, the audience, and any constraints that shape the presentation and reception of the discourse. Using the illustrative example of a well-known behavioral security theory, protection motivation theory, this study provides a framework for behavioral security scholars in designing fear appeals that have rhetorical validity.

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Computers and Security