An interesting, yet fairly simplified article on fear. I must admit I rather enjoyed the sections on ‘fight or flight’ and ‘fear conditioning.’ I should do more hands-on research in the latter.
In the mid 1960’s, Howard Leventhal, a social psychologist from Yale University, USA, invited a group of 30 senior students to participate in what they thought was an experiment on a public health brochure evaluation. The tetanus pamphlet, as it was called, was to be evaluated for its persuasiveness in communicating the dangers of tetanus and the importance of inoculation.
To that effect, the students read the pamphlet, carefully analysed its contents and filled out the evaluation report. When they were done they handed it to the experimenter and went on their merry way thinking the experiment was over. In reality, though, the experiment had just begun.
What the Participants Did Not Know
While Leventhal really was trying to measure the persuasiveness of the pamphlet, his measure of effectiveness was not how persuasive the participants thought or said it was but how it actually affected their behaviour. He wanted to see how many of the participants would subsequently get vaccinated. To make things interesting, he gave different students different pamphlets.
Those in the ‘high fear’ group received booklets with powerful language describing the risks of contracting tetanus and vividly frightening images to show what it did to people. For those in the low fear group, the experimenters toned down the language and took out the distressing images.
Leventhal wanted to see if higher fear levels in the pamphlet would lead to a higher number of participants seeking inoculation.
It did not.
After making regular checks with the medical centre for over a month, Leventhal found that only one person out of the whole group had subsequently got the vaccination. Apart from scaring the living day lights out of the participants, the fear appeal, and especially the high fear appeal, did nothing to persuade the participants to seek vaccination.
Why Did the Fear Fail To Persuade?
Leventhal could not work out why this had happened. Had the participants not understood the dangers of tetanus? Had they not understood the importance of being vaccinated?
Leventhal analysed their evaluation reports to see if this was the case. To his surprise, the reports not only showed the students clearly understood the nature and seriousness of tetanus but also the importance of being vaccinated. What was more, the reports revealed that most students intended to get vaccinated. Despite the good intentions, however, only one of the participants followed through with their plans.
By any measure the pamphlet was a complete failure.
Then Leventhal tried including specific instructions on how to deal with the threat of tetanus. He included a map of the university medical centre and listed the times the centre provided the free tetanus shots.
This time the number of participants getting vaccinated rose from the measly 3.3% to an impressive 33% – a 10 fold increase in persuasive muscle.
The Trick to Using Fear in Persuasion
Leventhal concluded that for messages using fear appeals to be persuasive, there must be specific, clear and explicitly listed steps the audience can take to resolve the presented threat. Otherwise the fear will paralyse the audience and they will simply choose denial to deal with their dilemma.
If you are a public health marketer, for example, rather than simply telling your target market the dangers of a certain disease, e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or the dangers of a certain activity, e.g. smoking, overeating, drug abuse or alcohol abuse, also list the specific steps they can take to overcome their problem. Otherwise you will just be scaring their pants off with nothing to show for it.
Remember, fear alone does not persuade, it paralyses.
- A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger.
- A state or condition marked by this feeling: living in fear.
2. A feeling of disquiet or apprehension: a fear of looking foolish.3. Extreme reverence or awe, as toward a supreme power.4. A reason for dread or apprehension: Being alone is my greatest fear.
v. feared, fear·ing, fears v.tr.1. To be afraid or frightened of.2. To be uneasy or apprehensive about: feared the test results.3. To be in awe of; revere.4. To consider probable; expect: I fear you are wrong. I fear I have bad news for you.5. Archaic To feel fear within (oneself).
v.intr.1. To be afraid.2. To be uneasy or apprehensive.
[Middle English fer, from Old English fær, danger, sudden calamity; see per-3 in Indo-European roots.]
fear’er n.Synonyms: fear, fright, dread, terror, horror, panic, alarm, dismay, consternation, trepidation
These nouns denote the agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger. Fear is the most general term: “Fear is the parent of cruelty” (J.A. Froude).
Fright is sudden, usually momentary, great fear: In my fright, I forgot to lock the door.
Dread is strong fear, especially of what one is powerless to avoid: His dread of strangers kept him from socializing.
Terror is intense, overpowering fear: “And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror” (Edgar Allan Poe).
Horror is a combination of fear and aversion or repugnance: Murder arouses widespread horror.
Panic is sudden frantic fear, often groundless: The fire caused a panic among the horses.
Alarm is fright aroused by the first realization of danger: I watched with alarm as the sky darkened.
Dismay robs one of courage or the power to act effectively: The rumor of war caused universal dismay.
Consternation is often paralyzing, characterized by confusion and helplessness: Consternation gripped the city as the invaders approached.
Trepidation is dread characteristically marked by trembling or hesitancy: “They were … full of trepidation about things that were never likely to happen” (John Morley).
Word History: Old English fær, the ancestor of our word fear, meant “calamity, disaster,” but not the emotion engendered by such an event. This is in line with the meaning of the prehistoric Common Germanic word *fēraz, “danger,” which is the source of words with similar senses in other Germanic languages, such as Old Saxon and Old High German fār, “ambush, danger,” and Old Icelandic fār, “treachery, damage.” Scholars have determined the form and meaning of Germanic *fēraz by working backward from the forms and the meanings of its descendants. The most important cause of the change of meaning in the word fear was probably the existence in Old English of the related verb færan, which meant “to terrify, take by surprise.” Fear is first recorded in Middle English with the sense “emotion of fear” in a work composed around 1290.