Is fear persuasive?

Fear Appeals: Persuade When They’re Afraid

There’s been a lot of talk about fear in the current election. In particular, many people[1]  “A lot of people are saying it,” as Trump might claim. have explained Donald Trump’s success thus far to his keen ability to play on people’s fears. But it’s not even just appealing to pre-existing fears. Some have even suggested that he has been actively instilling fears where they may not have already existed. What’s the deal with fear appeals? Could creating fear in a population really be good for business? Sorry, I mean “politics.”

You might think that arousing fear in people can open them to influence. Plenty of ad campaigns have tried to terrify people as a way of convincing them to quit smoking, say “no” to drugs, and buy life insurance. So it must work, right? People are doing it!

Psychologists have been wondering about the persuasive power of fear, too, and they’ve run some studies that provide some compelling insights about fear and persuasion. First, let’s look at the first glimpse we had into the psychology of fear-based persuasion. Then we’ll look at the more complicated picture that later studies revealed. Basically, fear appeals aren’t a reliable persuasive strategy all on its own, but when it’s combined with a few other ingredients, it becomes a powerful influencer.

Too Much Fear is Not Persuasive (On Its Own)

fear03One of the first studies on fear and persuasion, published in the 50s, looked at whether students were convinced by a message about oral hygiene. The researchers developed three different messages aimed at getting people to take care of their teeth.

One message was pretty mild–it was just a fact-based lecture about teeth. Another message invoked a bit of fear, telling people about the dangers that come from neglecting oral hygiene. The final message laid it on thick, emphasizing the dangers of poor oral hygiene like tooth decay and gum disease and making claims like “this could happen to you!”[2]  Here’s a quote from the strong message: “If you ever develop an infection of this kind from improper care of your teeth, it will be an extremely serious matter because these infections are really dangerous. They can spread to your eyes, or your heart, or your joints and cause secondary infections which may lead to diseases such as arthritic paralysis, kidney damage, or total blindness.

In total, 200 high school students read one of these message (some of them actually read an essay on a different topic, just as a comparison). A week later, they followed up with these students to see if they’d improved their oral hygiene. Were they brushing their teeth better now? Surprisingly, the group that got “just the facts” improved the most! The group that got the most fear-inducing message barely changed their behavior at all! The moderate version of the message was somewhat effective, but not as effective as the simpler factual message.[3]  Not surprisingly, the group who read a message on a different topic didn’t change their tooth brushing habits at all.

The lesson here seems to be that fear is not that persuasive on its own. The terrifying message about all the diseases that come from failing to appropriately brush your teeth did little to improve people’s brushing habits.

Hold on, though. We’re about to see how fear can sometimes do the job…

Persuasion Through Fear Appeals + Solutions

So scaring people to death may not be the perfect strategy, but why? Well, it might be that we feel stuck when we feel afraid. Just scaring people puts them into a panic, distracting them from your key message. In general, this is a bad thing, but it might also set people up to be more persuaded when the message makes one other thing clear: a solution.

Fear Appeals and PersuasionFear is persuasive when it’s combined with a clear way to address that fear. By making people feel afraid, they are likely to latch onto a solution that provides a clear and effective route to addressing whatever it is that’s making them afraid.

Take one early study that gave college students information about the importance of getting a tetanus shot. One version of the message simply described a case history of someone with tetanus using non-emotional language and only a couple drawings of facial expressions. The scarier version, though, described the case history in vivid detail and provided color photos of bedridden patients with gaping wounds, urinary catheters, and nasal tubes.

All of these messages noted the importance of getting a tetanus shot, but the important thing is that only half of the message recipients also received detailed instructions for where and how to get their shots at their college’s health center. The other half of people probably knew this information–it just wasn’t handed to them as part of the message.

The results showed that the scarier message was more persuasive, but only if it also provided a clear plan for getting the tetanus shot. In other words, the fear was motivating for people, but it only led to real change if people understood exactly what they should do next.

This has been shown over and over again across many studies, and it’s worth noting that fear-inducing messages don’t backfire if a clear solution isn’t provided–they just don’t work as well.

Boo! Other Factors To Consider in Fear and Persuasion

The research on fear appeals and persuasion is a vast sea of studies at this point. Last year, several psychologists published a big meta-analysis that combined the results of hundreds of studies to get an even more accurate picture of fear’s persuasive power. This analysis considered responses from over 27,000 people, so it gives us a good idea of whether fear can be an important influencer.

Even though the early study on oral hygiene made it seem like fear was a worthless tactic, the results of all the studies since then clearly show that fear appeals are persuasive. They affect people’s opinions and their behaviors.

This new meta-analysis reveals some other interesting tidbits, though. We already saw that fear appeals are more effective when the message provides a clear and effective course of action. This new analysis showed a few other things that make fear appeals more persuasive.

For instance, fear appeals are more persuasive when they recommend a one-time behavior (vs. repeated behaviors). Fear appeals are also more effective when they convey higher amounts of fear and when they’re directed at mostly female audiences.

So, okay, is fear the way to win an election? Well, maybe. For some people, Trump not only reminds them of their fears about the future of America but also stands as that clear and effective solution. For other people, though, it seems pretty obvious that Trump isn’t a clear and effective solution to much of anything. So even if you might be afraid of things like terrorism, that fear alone won’t motivate you to cast a vote for Mr. Trump because you don’t see how he represents a clear, viable solution.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  “A lot of people are saying it,” as Trump might claim.
2.  Here’s a quote from the strong message: “If you ever develop an infection of this kind from improper care of your teeth, it will be an extremely serious matter because these infections are really dangerous. They can spread to your eyes, or your heart, or your joints and cause secondary infections which may lead to diseases such as arthritic paralysis, kidney damage, or total blindness.
3.  Not surprisingly, the group who read a message on a different topic didn’t change their tooth brushing habits at all.

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