When trying to persuade an audience to behave a certain way, does fear paralyze, as F.D.R. suggested in his famous inaugural address, or does it persuade and motivate? What you need to know, from Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.
In his first inaugural address, the thirty-second U.S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, uttered the following famous words to anxious, Depression-era Americans: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” But was Roosevelt correct? When trying to persuade an audience to behave a certain way, does fear paralyze, as he suggested, or does it persuade and motivate?
For the most part, research has demonstrated that fear-arousing communications usually stimulate the audience to take action to reduce the threat. However, this general rule has one important exception: When the fear-producing message describes danger but the audience is not told of clear, specific, effective means of reducing the danger, they may deal with the fear by “blocking out” the message or denying that it applies to them. As a consequence, they may indeed be paralyzed into taking no action at all.
In one study conducted by health researcher Howard Leventhal and colleagues, students read a public health pamphlet detailing the dangers of tetanus infection. The pamphlet was either filled or not filled with frightening details of the consequences of contracting tetanus. In addition, they either did or did not receive a specific plan for how to arrange to get a tetanus injection. Finally, there was a control group of students who did not get a warning about tetanus but did get a plan of how to get a tetanus injection. The high-fear message motivated the participants to get a tetanus injection only if it included a plan identifying the specific action they could take to secure a tetanus injection and thereby reduce their fear of tetanus. The more clearly people see behavioral means for ridding themselves of fear, the less they will need to resort to denial.
These findings can be applied to business and beyond. Advertising campaigns that inform potential customers of the real-world threats that a company’s goods or services can alleviate should always be accompanied by clear, specific, effective steps they can take to reduce the danger. Simply scaring customers into believing that a product or service can help with a potential problem might have the opposite effect, potentially cementing them into inaction if there is a failure to provide specific, achievable steps that they can take to avoid such a threat.
Similarly, if you happen to spot a particularly serious problem in a large-scale project undertaken by your organization, you would be wise to accompany your statements to management with at least one viable plan of action the company could take to avert the potential disaster (assuming you can design a plan quickly, of course). If you decide that you will tell management about a problem first and generate a plan later, by the time you and your coworkers have developed a plan, management may have already found ways to block out the message or refuse to admit that it applies to that particular project.
Health care professionals and public service communicators should also be aware of the implications of this research. Physicians or nurses who wish to persuade an overweight patient to lose weight and exercise more often should focus that patient on the potential dangers of failing to lose weight, but only if they follow up that message with some clear, straightforward steps the patient can take to do so — perhaps in the form of a specific diet and a specific set of exercises. Simply pointing out that he or she is at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes if no weight is lost might only serve to instill fear and denial in a patient. In the case of public service officials, merely painting a gruesome picture of the impact of dangerous behavior, such as smoking, having unprotected sex, and drunk driving, may also be ineffective — or even potentially backfire — if unaccompanied by a good plan of action.
Given the necessity of pairing a message conveying the potential threat faced by the audience with a clear, specific, easy-to-follow plan, perhaps Roosevelt’s statement should be amended to say “the only thing we have to fear is fear by itself.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Robert B. Cialdini is the author of the bestseller Influence and the president of INFLUENCE AT WORK (www.influenceatwork.com). Steve J. Martin is the Managing Director of INFLUENCE AT WORK. And Noah J. Goldstein is a faculty member at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Together they are the authors of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive (Copyright © 2008 by Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin, and Robert B. Cialdini), a New York Times® bestseller.
MORE ARTICLES BY THE AUTHORS
- How to Win Respect — Even From Your Opposition
- Retail Therapy: Does Being Sad Mean You’ll Spend More?
- Read an excerpt from Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive
- Read the Introduction to the book