Source of the following article Persuasive Litigator.

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 


If the panoply of strategies to persuade were a dating pool, then the fear appeal would definitely be the “bad boy,” or “bad girl.” By that I mean, attractive, a little shady, and potentially dangerous. The tactic of motivating your target audience by instilling and then alleviating some kind of fear is attractive because it often works, shady because it is seen as appealing to the lowest among human motivators, and dangerous because it might backfire if the fear is too strong or too difficult to resolve. In legal persuasion, that mixed bag of effects has understandably led some litigators to avoid it, thinking, “I’d rather persuade based on facts and evidence, and not on fear.” Other trial lawyers, however, have run in the opposite direction. The plaintiff bar, for example, has staked a claim on fear as a central motivator. And it probably doesn’t help with the bad boy/girl reputation that this approach sounds like something slithering and cold: “The Reptile.” 

Based on the research, the effectiveness, at least, of fear as a strategy is less controversial. The studies show that fear is a strategy that you can typically bank on. In one of the largest recent studies on the topic (Tannenbaum et al., 2015), researchers conducted a meta-analysis of a total of 127 studies involving a whopping 27,372 research subjects examining the effects of fear appeals. The results? Including a fear appeal in your message works. “Overall, we conclude that (a) fear appears are effective at positively influencing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors; (b) there are very few circumstances under which they are not effective; and (c) there are no identified circumstances under which they backfire and lead to undesirable outcomes.” Does that make the fear appeal the right kind of persuasive strategy — the kind you would take home to mother? The answer is that it still depends on how it is used. A more recent research article (Meczkowski & Dillard, 2017) considered many different theoretical accounts for why fear works. There is some theoretical nuance there, but the advice, what the authors call the “gold standard,” for dealing with fear appeals, remains relatively consistent. In this post, I will take a look at those factors that cause the fear appeal to work most effectively.  

The researchers’ advice is that there are three factors that matter most to the success of a fear appeal: severity, susceptibility, and control. 

Threat Severity 

Some advice to persuaders is to avoid threats that are too extreme, on the theory that fear-appeals that are too frightening will just motivates fear reduction rather than danger reduction, as your targets just reframe the threat so it is less frightening (e.g., “too remote,” “would never happen to me,” “it was her own fault”). While the meta-analysis by Tannenbaum and others did not find support for that general “backlash” effect, there have been some studies that have shown it. For example, a study on global warming messages (Feinberg & Willer, 2011) found that the most dire warnings actually reduced belief in global warming. The problem in cases like that, however, might not be the severity of the threat but the uncertainty of the protective action. As long as there is a clear solution to the fear created (see below) then more severe threats do seem to generally create better chances for persuasion. This explains why plaintiffs want to frame their preferred verdict as a response to a high-level threat (An incompetent doctor, a dishonest company, a flawed product, etc.) and why defendants want to minimize that danger as much as possible.  

Threat Susceptibility

One principle that adherents to the Reptile approach have fully absorbed is that the nature of the threat at the heart of the case needs to be generalized. As long as it is viewed as “just the plaintiff’s problem,” it is easy for your audience to dismiss it and to insulate themselves. The research also backs that up, with the review from Tannenbaum and others finding that threat appeals with a high level of perceived susceptibility seem to work the best. Other research also shows that our common “belief in a just world” motivates us to find ways to believe that a bad outcome could not have happened to us. For that reason, the more a defendant can focus on factors that were individual, unique the the plaintiff, and under that individual’s control, the less a target audience will feel susceptible to that fear.  

Threat Controllability

Based on most theories of the ways a persuasive fear appeal operates is that it’s not the fear itself that motivates, rather it is the perceived reduction in fear that is reinforcing. If a threat is not controllable, and exists whether we protect ourselves or not, then it is more likely to lead to the demotivating feeling of dread, not fear. The juror who feels that hospital accidents happen all the time and there is not much that any of us can do about it is likely to put the case in the “stuff happens,” frame of meaning, and to be more sad than angry over the result. As Meczkowski and Dillard note,”If fear was too intense or the message did not provide a means of reducing it, then message recipients were likely to engage in some form of defensive posturing.” The meta-analysis of studies also showed that the effectiveness of fear appeals is greater when the message includes statements about the efficient control of that threat. To emphasize control, persuaders have long-known that a positive frame (“Stopping smoking now can extend your life”) is likely to be more effective than a negative frame (“Your smoking is going to kill you”).

Like all strategies that seek to harness human motivation, a fear appeal is not a simple tactic with push-button results. There are also individual differences, with some people being much more susceptible to a fear appeal. Overall, it is likely that thinking in terms of alleviating general threats has helped the plaintiff’s bar in litigation because it has encouraged advocates to think beyond the evidence to the ways that a given story might matter to the jurors personally. But it isn’t automatic, and it isn’t a substitute for a close analysis of your case and your audience. 


Other Posts on Fear: 


Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2011). Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just-world beliefs. Psychological science, 22(1), 34-38.

Meczkowski, E. J., & Dillard, J. P. (2017). Fear Appeals in Strategic Communication. The International Encyclopedia of Media Effects.

Tannenbaum, M. B., Hepler, J., Zimmerman, R. S., Saul, L., Jacobs, S., Wilson, K., & Albarracín, D. (2015). Appealing to fear: A meta-analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 141(6), Nov 2015, 1178-1204.

Image credit: brxO, Flickr Creative Commons

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