Persuading the living daylights out of you
Using fear as a persuasive tool is effective, but it’s like bringing a knife to a fist fight. It usually does more harm than good.
Pleasure & Pain
A simple way to think about motivation is the ‘three core motivators’ model by BJ Fogg. The three core motivators are Sensation (pleasure, pain), Anticipation (hope, fear), belonging (acceptance, rejection). You’ll notice there’s a positive and negative side to each motivator. Motivation isn’t the be all end all. Even if motivation is high, the actor still needs to know about it and have the ability to act on it. BJ calls these other elements ‘the trigger’ and ‘ability’.
But when motivation is high, you can get people to do hard things. This concept is interesting to writers, designers, advertisers etc, because we are often asking people to do hard, confusing or strange things that they don’t want to do. Signing up for bank accounts, follow these new twitter accounts or buying organic milk instead of your regular milk.
Scared into action
Crafting a persuasive message is something that humans have been doing for a very long time. Short, unique but easy to understand words, images and keeping the number of topics to a minimum are all decent techniques to transmit a persuasive message.
But fear is like a nuclear bomb. It explodes back thousands of years to a wind swept prairie, where a pack of wolves are encircling your forefathers, gibbering and dripping with saliva. Fear has served us well because it has kept us alive. We remember wolves nipping at our heels, the adrenaline tattooed it onto our brains and we live to fight another day. Fear is also inescapable when it comes to modern, persuasive messages, whether it is the steady stream of covid headlines that we doomscroll or adverts where famous people shame us for not investing in crypto.
Hot (scary) takes
Jordan Peterson often uses negative motivators like fear and social exclusion to drill home his points. I’m picking on Jordan not because he’s a particularly bad offender but because he’s a figure often in the news sharing thoughts and ideas (although most of them are garbled garbage). In conversation with Joe Rogan, they unpack the concept of ‘retiring on tropical island’. His underlying point is true, we should think carefully about what we want our life to look like. We shouldn’t blindly take cues from a Corona billboard. But all too quickly, Jordan throws a number of shameful, fear inducing barbs. If you don’t heed his advice, “you’ll be this pathetic, sunburned, fat, unhappy, hungover…cirrhotic. It’s this 16 year old (boy’s) vision of paradise and it (won’t) work out.”
When he’s persuading young people on the importance of writing, Jordan moves swiftly from general advice to warnings of death. If you don’t think carefully about important issues, your life will be “nasty, brutish and short”. Writing will help you understand other writers, preventing you from “falling prey to foolish fads and whims and ideologies, which can range in their danger from trivial to mortal.” And finally, if you don’t learn to write, “your life will be harder, at the bottom of the dominance hierarchies that you will inevitably inhabit, and you will get old fast.” Death, pain and social exclusion. He’s going all in.
It’s over the top, fearful and negative, but it’s important to consider Jordan’s primary audience: Young, often rudderless men with short attention spans. If he can scare someone to write maybe that’s a net positive?
The backfire effect
We read and listen to these messages because we are attracted and ‘attuned to threats’ (like wolves), but we usually “end up getting depressed and anxious and disconnected.” It’s not even clear that these sorts of messages are effective. We know that when we present people with ideas that rock their beliefs people will reject this evidence, and strengthen their support for their original stance.
Fear is everywhere these days, and it’s still a powerful motivator. But too much fear isn’t a call to action, it just makes people scared.