Does Shock Therapy Work When Teaching about Safety?

Not too ago I participated in a course on how to drive a forklift truck. Part of the course was a classroom session in which the facilitator seemed to enjoy nothing more than telling anecdotes about terrible forklift accidents. Those anecdotes left a deep impression on me and they have made me much more careful whenever I am driving a forklift truck. However they also paralysed my partner (who owns the business that uses the forklift), making her completely nervous when she has to drive it.

I was reminded of this course when I chanced upon the following safety video:

(actually the video that I saw had even more gore, but has now been removed)

In the Netherlands we have had a campaign for years that warns people not to be careless when dealing with fireworks. The slogan is “Je bent een rund als je met vuurwerk stunt” (meaning something like: “You are an idiot when you play around with fireworks”). The initial campaigns were very shocking with posters and videos of damaged limbs. I couldn’t find any of the original materials, but did find this photo from a news article:

Slogan on the poster in the background: "...Stuffed 30 firecrackers in a football..."
Slogan on the poster in the background: "...Stuffed 30 firecrackers in a football..."

and this TV ad::

“Old year’s eve, we are ready for it. You too?”

The campaign has now lost its shocking edge and tries to make its point by alluding to what can happen to your virility when you have an accident:

“Gentlemen, never keep fireworks in your pockets”

Talking about virility is now an oft-used trick in trying to stop people from doing things. It is used in this UK anti-smoking ad for example:

Does smoking make you hard?
Does smoking make you hard?

These last two campaigns are obviously geared towards men (so was the forklift course by the way: the facilitator could not stop making offensive sexist jokes) and I wouldn’t be surprised if men in general need a different campaign than women when they need to be scared into (not) doing something.

I would be very interested to hear about any research that has been done into teaching about safety. It would be great if people have tried to answer questions like:

  • Is is possible to change people’s work behaviour by scaring or shocking them with graphic examples?
  • If yes, does this change in behaviour last and does it make them more careful or too careful (to the point of paralysis).
  • Are there relevant cultural and gender differences when trying to teach about safety?

Does anybody have some pointers or opinions?

5 thoughts on “Does Shock Therapy Work When Teaching about Safety?

  1. Hi Hans,

    I would suggest possible age differences as well. When the warning messages on cigarette packages were made mandatory, I remember reading a reaction from a teenage girl that was in no way shocked by the perspective of getting lung cancer and dying from it, but indicated that the fact that smoking was bad for your skin was far more likely to change her behaviour.


  2. Hi Hans,
    Very interesting thought, learning by shocking. I think in some cases to shock learners can be very effective. But I do think you have to be very carefull by using this kind of teaching-technique. Not in the last place because I think that people get used to shocking learningmaterial and get ‘resistant’. A good example is the warning messages against smoking. Most people are shocked when they see the messages for the first time but when they get used to it most of the effect is gone. So what are we going to do next? Shock them more?

  3. LOL!!!!! the ad about smoking is hilarious, well many experts says that smoking can cause decreasing of men virility or testosterone, hope smokers can see or visualize the bad effects of smoking

  4. Extensive advertising has been carried out on TV regarding killing your driving speed. Also drink/driving. The ads are really shocking but not sure if they change habits.

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