Does Fear Influence or Immobilize?

Within the past 25 years, the Library of Congress has recorded over 1,000 books with Armageddon or apocalypse in the title. Certainly many industries and causes gain adherence via fear. But what does the research say about fear as a motivator, and how does it impact how grassroots and PAC professionals engage their volunteers?

I was hired to conduct a training workshop at a national trade association conference where the audience was comprised of their state chapter government relations directors and state executives, one of my favorite audiences.

I was sharing with them how to frame the benefits of PAC and grassroots participation and the “M” question came up. You guessed it – the motivation question. One of the state executives was frustrated that people weren’t motivated to give to his PAC. He felt that if they could see how various lawmakers interacted with their industry versus their opponents, especially in a committee hearing setting, they would be enraged by the unfairness of it all and moved to contribute to the PAC. I thought it was a great idea and was getting ready to tell him so, until he told me part two of the story.

He took them to a committee hearing and let them witness how the chairman and majority members of the committee treated their industry representatives. They saw how questions were tougher on them than their opponents and how their opponents received more time to testify, etc.

After he told the story, I asked him if it motivated his members to contribute to the PAC, and he reported that it did not. This of course was his frustration. He felt like he gave them a vivid example of what was at stake, but it still did not make a difference in his PAC receipts.

He had half of the formula right – to present vivid information that demonstrates inherent unfairness in real time. However, there was one problem – he did not give them what I will call the “post – fear action plan.”

The Post-Fear Action Plan

Research has demonstrated that fear based communications usually stimulate people to take action to reduce a threat. But the rule has one important exception: when the fear produced message shows the danger, but your stakeholders are not given crisp, clear, effective means of reducing the danger, they may deal with it by “blocking out” the information or thinking it does not apply to them. Health researcher Howard Leventhal conducted an experiment where students were given a public health pamphlet detailing the dangers of tetanus infection. There were two pamphlets – one was filled with the frightening details of the consequences of contracting tetanus, the other one did not have that information. In addition, some did receive a specific plan for how to arrange to get a tetanus injection, others did not. Leventhal found that the high fear message motivated the participants to get a tetanus injection only if it included a plan with clear steps they could take to get the injection. The more clearly people understand the exact behaviors needed to dissipate the fear, the less they will block out your message.

The bottom line #1: You can use fear as a motivator, but you must articulate tangible, crisp, behaviors people can take to address their fear. Otherwise, they will ignore your message and inertia ensues.

The bottom line #2: You know how to scare your people, but do you know what they should do to address the situation beyond “making your voice heard” or contacting their legislator?