How effective a motivator is fear? Most meta-analytic reviews have supported the view that fear serves as a motivator (Kimura). Hitler made the German population fearful of “the Jewish threat” by accusing them of causing all the economic and social problems of the day. Jonathan Edwards in an attempt to get people to repent their sins painted a terrifying picture of mankind being held over a fiery pit into which they deserved to be thrown by an angry God. Both of these tactics were effective motivators. The German people were all too happy to follow Hitler and thousands became Christians during the Great Awakening when the preaching was all done in a similar style to Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hand of an angry God”. Fear appeals are powerful because they channel our thoughts away from careful consideration of the issue at hand and toward plans for ridding ourselves of the fear (Pratkanis 2).
However, while fear alone draws attention to a subject it may not be the most critical factor (Lewis 1). More important aspects may the perceived vulnerability of the target audience and the strategies offered to deal with the situation. If too much fear is presented then the audience generally either becomes resigned or denies that it will ever really happen to them because it feels too overwhelming (Pratkanis 3). Too much fear can be debilitating (Pratkanis 3). People try not to think about the negative consequence that may result from their actions and therefore being scared too much can cause them to miss the message.
There is an “optimal level” of fear that shouldn’t be exceeded when using fear as a form of persuasion (Lewis 3). An effective argument doesn’t exceed the optimal level of fear and offers a clear and easy solution to the presented threat (Pratkanis 4). If just fear is presented without instructions on how to counteract the source of the fear such as a gory video on driving safely that doesn’t give simple instructions like wear a seat belt or call a taxi when drunk, then people just become hopeless which is not the persuader’s goal. In an experiment Howard Leventhal showed that even when one goes over the optimal fear level as long as specific and easily performed instructions are given the fear is still an effective form of persuasion (Pratkanis 4).
Hitler’s “Jewish threat” was presented to the people as pressing but Hitler had a clear and simple solution to the problem. He threatened his audiences with dire consequences if a certain course of action was not followed (Pratkanis 2). Since he was the only one to offer a solution to the “threat” people accepted his answer to the question, “Yes we’re afraid is there anything we can do about it?” The German people feared the perceived threat to social and economic stability especially after the devastating depression they had just suffered. Since the fear of a return of the depression was so great Hitler did exceed the optimal fear level. However, he provided a simple solution for the German people so it was still effective.
Fear can be a great motivator but if used in too large quantities it can have the opposite of the desired effect by overwhelming the audience into believing there is nothing they can do. However, sometimes when the “optimal level” of fear is exceeded as long as instructions are given on how to alleviate the fear, the persuader’s goal can still be achieved.
Lewis, I., et al. "The Role of Fear Appeals in Improving Driver Safety: A Review of the Effectiveness of Fear-Arousing (Threat) Appeals in Road Safety Advertising." International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy 3.2 (2007): 203-22. PsycINFO. Web. 20 Oct. 2009.
Pratkanis, Anthony R., and Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1992.
Kimura, Kenichi. "Fear Appeals and the Promotion of Health Protective Behaviors." Japanese Psychological Review 48.1 (2005): 21-5. Print.