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Fear and Persuasion


Techniques General persuasion > Articles on persuasion > Fear and Persuasion

The argument for fear | The argument against fear | Successful fear | See also


Fear and persuasion often seem natural bedfellow and sometimes they do go together, yet often they can be mutually exclusive.

The argument for fear

From Aristotle to Freud and beyond, it has been recognized that pain and pleasure are critical motivators. We experience desire for that which gives us pleasure and fear of that which causes us pain. More recently, Hovland, Janis and Kelley (1953) suggested use of threats that cause anxiety or other forms of fear about negative consequences of depicted in the message.

You do not have to cause pain to create fear. The human frontal cortex has a primary function in thinking about the future. We are quite skilled at imagining what might happen and experiencing anticipatory emotions. This has proved helpful in our evolution, but it can also cause problems as anticipated fear of things that may not happen cause us stress and allow others to persuade us.

The argument against fear

An appeal to fear is not always successful both as we have reactions that it causes an because we are relatively complex in our thinking, for example, not only does fear make us want to reduce it, it also makes us want to do so with dignity.

The Fight-or-Flight reaction effectively means that when we experience fear, we may well either run away or fight back. Flight is theoretically a possibly useful response in that the persuader is like a sheepdog, nudging others in the right direction. Yet people can indeed be like sheep in that they will flee in random directions, making the sheepdog's work very exhausting.

Flight can also be cognitive and various coping mechanisms may be used, such as denial.

Fighting back is also common and can be very subtle. There are many ways of resisting persuasion that are not always obvious but will ultimately frustrate the persuader.

A third route freezing, much as rabbit caught in headlights, particularly if the threat is seen as extreme and with no obvious solution. Motivationally this is not helpful, as it means the other person does nothing, which is almost as bad as running in the wrong direction.

Janis and Feshbach (1953) rethought the fear theory that Janis had helped develop a year earlier, noting that the stronger fear that a persuasive message invokes, the greater the resistance to persuasion.

Successful fear

Using fear successfully must be a careful and subtle method, based on an understanding of your audience. Miller (1963) suggested a curvilinear relationship between fear and persuasion. When fear is too low or too high, then persuasion is less effective. 

It is also important to understand how the people you are persuading respond to fear. There are many different responses and a threat to one person may have no effect whilst another reacts badly whilst another does just what you want. This variability is one reason why broad fear appeals are so hazardous and can easily rebound.

Witte (1992) noted that if you want to use fear to motivate, you also have to indicate the escape route. Your route also has to be more attractive than other alternatives, including fight-or-flight.

Rogers (1983) described Protection Motivation Theory and its four components of an effective threat framework:

  • Severity: Consequences must be
    very undesirable.
  • Vulnerability: Consequences are a danger to the person involved.
  • Response efficacy: They can avoid the negative outcome by following your recommendations.
  • Self-efficacy: They are able to engage in the recommended action.

Prospect Theory adds another layer of consideration, with judicious thoughts about possible losses and gains. Talking about loss works best when the person perceives higher risk, whilst gain framing is better when lower risk is perceived.

See also

Fear, Appeal to Fear, Coping Mechanisms, Prospect Theory


Hovland, C.I., Janis, I.L., and Kelley, H.H. (1953). Communication and persuasion: Psychological studies of opinion change. New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press.

Janis, I.L. and Feshbach, S. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 48, 78–92.

Miller, G.R. (1963). Studies on the use of fear appeals: A summary and analysis. Central States
Speech Journal
,24, 117–125.

Rogers, R.W. (1983). Cognitive and psychological
processes in fear appeals and attitude change: A revised theory of protection motivation. In J. Cacioppo & D.Shapiro (Eds.), Social psychophysiology: A source book (pp.153–176).NewYork: Guilford Press.

Witte, K. (1992). The role of threat and efficacy in AIDS prevention. International Quarterly of Community Health Education, 12, 225–249.


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