Using Fear to Get Yours
In a surprising turn of events the frontrunners for the 2016 US presidential elections are Bernie Sanders and Donald J. Trump. One year ago, nobody could’ve predicted the scale and success of their campaigns’.
Recently, I saw an analysis that the two candidates are precisely the same in that they both tap into others’ anger. In fact, up until the last days before the most recent primary, a lot of folks were wondering which of the two to choose.
Sanders and Trump might not have the same overall ideas, but the technique they are using is the same - persuasion through fear. What’s more, out of all the candidates, they are the only ones who are using this incredibly powerful persuasion technique. Thus, their lead in the polls is not at all surprising.
I will explain the fear persuasion model, otherwise called the Extended Parallel Process Model or EPPM (scientists love to give simple things complicated sounding names), demonstrate how both candidates have used it thus far and show how the technique can be skillfully used to persuade an audience.
It’s important to note that while taking advantage of people’s fear has a negative connotation, it isn’t necessarily so. It can effectively influence people to improve their behavior. Consider the mother who wants to persuade her child to stay away from drugs. Or consider the goal of convincing women to use birth control and limit teen pregnancies. In those situations using fear has been proven to work incredibly well.
Using fear as a persuasion tool, then, is not evil. It can lead to great change and positive results, just as it can lead to destruction and devastation. Ultimately, it is up to the people who use it, to use it for good.
It is beneficial to us all to understand how one can use fear to persuade others. This will provide not only for a powerful way to achieve ones’ goals, but perhaps more importantly, a way to defend against fear, when it is used maliciously. This kind of understanding will allow one to look at things unaffected, and thus make better decisions.
Here is how the EPPM works. It starts with a fear arousing message. To be effective this message needs to convey two things - threat information, i.e. problem, and efficacy information, i.e. solution. You need to be convinced that the problem is both severe enough to pay attention, and that you are susceptible enough to be worried. Furthermore, the message needs to convey a plan of action and arguments that convince you the desired action is effective (response efficacy). Finally, it also needs to give you the belief that you are capable of following through with the plan (self-efficacy). A fear inducing message without a plan of action is hollow. It is not effective.
Throughout his campaign Donald Trump has maintained a controversial attitude towards non-white racial groups. His position is that they are detrimental to the country as a whole, especially the economy. They steal jobs, they are violent, they are not to be trusted. They are to be feared. He has further hinted that the people in power are also not to be trusted. They have special interests. They will sell out the country. He has tried hard to convince people that there are many things to be afraid of and that he alone is the answer to these problems.
In the meantime Bernie Sanders has kept his message revolving around the top 1%. This evil group of people hoard all their money and don’t give anything back to the people or economy. They keep getting richer and richer, while the middle class keeps getting poorer. They are too big to fail. If you are the middle class you’re falling behind and you keep falling behind, and you keep falling behind, and there is nobody to stand for you, but him. The big guy is dominating the small guy. You better be very, very afraid.
People are unhappy. They are looking for something to blame. It is in environments like this that fear strategies like Trumps’ or Sanders’ succeed. They provide the scapegoats. They have the solutions. One just has to vote for them.
If the fear arousing message is delivered masterfully, the listener will almost certainly do as suggested. There are only a couple of things that determine how it plays out. Whether he thinks that the perceived threat to him (fear), and the efficacy (capability to reach a solution), are sufficient. If so, he will tend to react just as is proposed.
If the fear is not sufficient, people will not react - they will not have a good incentive. If you are planning to use this strategy you better use a powerful fear arousing message. The spaghetti monster is coming for us all, is probably not going to work. You need a realistic, sufficient threat. The growing financial gap, the racial profiling scare tactics, for a lot of people, those sure are.
Now, if the threat appears sufficient enough for the individual, then the outcome depends on whether he believes in the efficacy of the proposed solution.
If one feels that the solution is not effective enough, he will reject the message and move into fear control mode. He will focus on ways to reduce his fear, instead of engaging in a proactive action to get rid of it. Take deep breaths. Drink a cup of water. Chew his fingernails, etc.The message will have failed.
If one feels however, that the proposed solution is effective enough, he will move into a danger control process. He will actually do what is proposed in order to deal with the danger. He believes that it can be dealt with, thus he does.
Another important fact - for a successful fear persuasion technique, the fear arousing message needs to hit a sweet spot between being too scary and not at all. If the audience feels immediately so scared as to be rendered incapacitated, then the plan will backfire. They will move into a fear control mode straight away and will not be able to process the message at all.
That is why the Trump and Sanders campaign is so effective. They have very successfully touched on all the points I’ve mentioned. They have provided a fear arousing message, that is neither too scary, nor not scary enough. They have demonstrated solutions to the problem, then they have managed to convince the audience that the solutions will work. You think a wall between US and Mexico is too absurd - you’re probably not voting for Trump. You think a complete overhaul of the health and tax system, plus free education is too absurd - you are probably not voting for Bernie. But all the people who are sufficiently scared and do believe - they will do just as is suggested. They will vote. And we all know how easy it can be to scare someone.
Nobody else is tapping into fear induced persuasion strategies as powerfully, or at all, as Sanders and Trump. Their success is thus not at all surprising. They have picked the most effective strategy and they have managed to gain traction. The only way they can be stopped is if someone can convince their supporters that their plans are lacking efficacy.
The only problem with that is that even if there is a cogent way to destroy their arguments the average voter will likely not listen. Once he is scared, once he has found a solution, once he has reached a decision - his mind is nearly dead-set. The most effective counter to the fear persuasion strategy is to know about it beforehand, so that when it is used on you, you can make your decisions objectively.