A recent new member to the gym told me on his fourth session, “I’m afraid I’ll quit”.  He was serious and this concerned me greatly. Why was he doubting himself?

For the sake of this article, we’ll call him Bob. Bob was making huge strides very quickly. In just over two weeks, Bob had lost 14lbs of body fat and was feeling much better. Anyone looking in from the outside would high five Bob and tell him how great he was doing. Yet, Bob was struggling to accept his success and truly feared he would just up and quit. Why did Bob feel this way?

It’s commonplace to hear clients doubt themselves and their abilities. They often don’t see the potential their Coaches see in them. So we do our best to show them, by various means and through their own actions, that their abilities are much higher than they could imagine. But Bob was truly fearful. It made me wonder why he was so scared and the motivation behind his decision making process. I could have very easily tossed his comments aside and pressed Bob forward but I wanted to explore the motive behind the fear. In my quest to find answers, I stumbled upon a theory I had glanced over many years ago during a clinical psychology course. It’s called Protection Motivation Theory (PMT).

Founded in 1975 by Dr. R.W. Rogers, PMT has been widely used to assess how people evaluate a particular threat which illicits fear and how they cope with that fear, such as when a person is diagnosed with a health related illness. For instance, your family Doctor informs you that you are pre-diabetic and are in danger of becoming a type II Diabetic if you don’t take action. Based on the steep rise of obesity and diabetes in this country, it’s appears that most people either don’t make the necessary long term changes or fail to make their short term behavior changes into long term habits. Of course there are many other variables but I think we can all agree on that stipulation. This is an exploration on how we can better understand our decision making process to help us make better choices and develop positive long-term habits. This theory has been used as the basis for all sorts of persuasive communications such as AIDS campaigns, heart disease prevention strategies, and anti-smoking ads. You just never even realized it.

You might say that people suffering from such preventable diseases have no will power or they lack motivation to make necessary changes despite the vast amounts of information available in today’s marketplace. But where does will power or motivation come from? It goes much deeper than just finding will power during some meta-physical meditation or epiphany. There is a real deep psycho-social analysis occurring and chances are you go through this process without thinking twice. Let’s try to understand how this works.

Fictitious scenario:
You visit your primary care Clinician. He places a chainsaw on your toes and tells you to sit still. You ask what the heck he’s doing? He tells you that he’s going to cut your toes off because you’re overweight, diabetic, and won’t take the necessary steps to stop your harmful eating behaviors and begin an exercise program. Just before the Doctor cuts your toes off you tell him you value your toes more than your donuts and early morning chicken biscuits and will make the changes. You’re scheduled for a check up at 4 weeks, 8 weeks, 16 weeks, and 6 months. Each time you come in you are reminded of the fear of losing your toes by the chainsaw looming over the exam table. Six months later, you’ve lost 40 pounds, look ten years younger, feel great, sleep wonderful, and can actually tie your shoes without losing your breath.

Real Scenario:
You visit your primary care Clinician. He informs you that you are overweight, pre-diabetic, and if you don’t change your attitude and subsequent behaviors about eating and exercise, you will develop type II diabetes which will lead to peripheral arterial disease and you will suffer distal nerve damage resulting in ulceration’s and infections to your feet and toes which eventually will lead to their amputation. That was a mouthful. Oh and by the way, cardiac disease and a reduction of life by 20 years plus a plethora of meds, healthcare bills, secondary illnesses, and an overall daily feeling like you are constantly walking through quicksand from the time you wake up until you go to sleep. You get freaked out and leave. On the way home you pass by your local burger joint and pick up a #1 with cheese, large fry, and a large diet Coke® because you are stressed from the news and “deserve” the fried fatness you are about to put in your mouth. But wait, you’re drinking a diet drink so that makes it healthier. Go ahead and laugh. You know it’s true. Worse yet, you know I’m speaking to you.

What happened here?

Using the PMT model, you rationalized or down played the perceived threat of your impending poor health condition of becoming a diabetic because it was something that wasn’t in the present tense. It’s a condition that may affect you down the road, later in life, not today. Today, you’re good. Oops, you got ketchup on your pants. Oh well, chomp chomp slurp.

You failed to perceive your present condition as a threat because you didn’t accept that being a pre-diabetic was and will continue to be harmful AND that you are vulnerable to the slowly progressing damage you are causing yourself. Therefore, you won’t cease your poor eating habits (maladaptive behavior), you won’t initiate new attitudes about developing positive habits (adaptive behavior), and subsequently never continue your changes you never made in the first place to save your own self (maintenance). The reward of continuing to live your life and do what you do is greater than the threat of what will inevitably happen to you in the future. This is referred to as the “Threat Appraisal Process”. Broken down further:

  1. You failed to perceive that you are in danger or that the danger was not real.
  2. You fail to stop the behavior and change the attitude contributing to such behavior.
  3. You continue your poor behavior.
  4. You make zero changes to your life.
  5. You develop preventable diseases and take BP and cholesterol meds and shred your pancreas ever so slowly until it stops producing insulin and you have to inject yourself daily.
  6. You become your own burden and a burden to your loved ones.

But wait, you say you’ll make the changes? That you actually perceive your situation to be grave and want to do something about it? Great! Except this is where most people begin to doubt themselves and where we pick up the conversation with Bob again. You see, Bob perceived that a threat to his life was present. That he is severely overweight. That he feels like crap most of the time. That he can’t walk up a flight of stairs without breathing hard and breaking a sweat. That he couldn’t tie his shoes without holding his breath. That he was in pain most of the time. So he chose to do something about it. He started eating better. He joined our gym. He is now losing weight. He’s feeling better and moving better with less pain. He’s happier now. Then why is he so afraid that he thinks he’ll quit?

Now that he has perceived the threat as real, he has to figure out a way to cope with it. So he “responds” by:

  1. Changing his eating habits
  2. Drinking more water
  3. Beginning an aggressive exercise program

This is referred to as “Response Efficacy”: the belief that the adaptive response will work. That taking the protective action will work in protecting oneself or others.

Next he must continue to believe that he has the ability to carry out this new behavior (adaptive response referred to as “Self-Efficacy”). This is otherwise known to you and me as motivation. Can Bob do this consistently?

Where does Bob find this motivation you ask? It begins with the process outlined above and the evaluation of how costly the response is to Bob in his life. The response costs are not limited to just monetary value. It can be the time you spend training, the time away from your family, the effort you take to eat right and cook your meals instead of drive-thru ordering, the criticism you get from friends or family that you are overreacting, or the effort of working your ass off during your exercise program and wondering if your Coach (that’s me) is trying to secretly kill you. The greater Bob continues to perceive that his positive adaptive behaviors outweigh the outcome of his negative maladaptive behaviors, the higher his motivation and success. Conversely, the cessation of his new adaptive behaviors also brings about a cost. If Bob quits, it will cost him. That cost was what got him to where he was in the first place. And…around we go.

The summation of all of these aforementioned processes results in how we decide to do what it is that we do. It isn’t a one-way street. Evaluation and re-evaluation in every aspect our lives and with almost any decision we make requires us to go through this appraisal and mediation process to arrive at our decision making processes, or motivations.

Our continued analysis of where we are, where we could be, where we want to be, and what those decisions will cost us in the long-term, will help us decide how we evaluate our life in the present and continued future. Whether you decide to pursue them successfully or quit is a cost that must be evaluated daily.

For Bob, he’s doing well and continues to re-evaluate his new adaptive behaviors. He’s asking questions and becoming informed. He’s learning that the pain of his past is something he doesn’t have to live with anymore. Bob is learning how his training in the gym has carry-over to his career choice. He is learning that the cost of doing the same as always is greater than the cost of what he is experiencing in the gym, no matter how hard I push the objective that day.

Bob is winning at life now. What’s stopping you?

For more on how Wolf Den Strength can help you change for the better please visit us at www.wolfdensc.com or contact us directly via email at [email protected]. We are serious about helping you change for the better.



  1. Rogers, R. W. (1975). “A protection motivation theory of fear appeals and attitude change.” Journal of Psychology, 91, 93-114.
  2. Rogers, R.W. (1983). “Cognitive and physiological processes in fear appeals and attitude change: A Revised theory of protection motivation.” In J. Cacioppo & R. Petty (Eds.), Social Psychophysiology. New York: Guilford Press.
  3. Mirkarimi, Kamal et al. “Effect of Motivational Interviewing on a Weight Loss Program Based on the Protection Motivation Theory.” Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal 17.6 (2015): e23492. PMC. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.
  4. Maddux, James E., and Ronald W. Rogers. “Protection motivation and self-efficacy: A revised theory of fear appeals and attitude change.” Journal of experimental social psychology 19.5 (1983): 469-479.
  5. Plotnikoff RC, Trinh L. “Protection motivation theory: is this a worthwhile theory for physical activity promotion?” Exerc Sport Science Rev 2010;38:91–8