December 6, 2010

The Persuasion Strategy You Have to Fear…Is Fear Itself

By: Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm – 

Broda_Bahm_Ken_88_120 Reacting to new evidence of support in the public as well as the U.S. military for allowing lesbians and gays to serve openly, those who support a continuation of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy continue to warn of a dangerous loss of troop cohesion and morale, as well as the potential loss of troop strength if the policy is repealed during wartime.  While proponents and opponents of change differ on the merits of these arguments, there is also a dimension to these warnings that students of persuasion would recognize as a classic fear appeal.  The practical question to ask, both generally and in the case of legal persuasion, is whether fear works.  A strategy of seeking to call to mind an audience’s fear is, of course, no stranger to litigation.  Plaintiffs imply, if they can, that a defendant unchecked by a strong verdict in this case will continue to harm others, including you and your loved ones.  And defendants also would like to benefit from the belief that continued encouragement of frivolous suits – like this one – will just add to the threatening trends that are increasing prices, raising insurance rates, and robbing consumers of choices.

It only makes sense to believe that jurors file into a deliberation room, not to execute ‘justice’ in some abstract sense, but to serve a principle that they have some direct stake in.  An approach currently very much in vogue within the plaintiff’s bar and known as the “Reptile” strategy, would seem to endorse the use of fear as a direct and personal motivator for your jury, but a careful review of research suggests that attorneys should think twice about how, or whether, to scare their jurors.

Intuitively, one would think that the strongest human motivator would be our own security:  identify a threat to that, and your audience will flock toward the safety of your offered solution, right?  Not always.  The problem with an unvarnished fear appeal is that it can backfire by causing its intended audience to withdraw from the subject matter.  For example, I learned to drive back when students were shown graphic films of the real victims of high-speed automobile accidents in a pre-airbag era.  Did they work in scaring viewers into safer driving?  The trend in research would say, no, and they could have had an opposite effect in causing all us young drivers to think even less of our personal safety, because the topic was now freighted with such negative emotional content.

A study soon to be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science, provides a timely case in point.  Two University of California, Berkeley social scientists studied the effectiveness of dire warnings about global warming and found that they were counterproductive:  dire warnings actually reduced belief in global warming, because those warnings are inconsistent with the views of a “just world” that most of us implicitly hold.  “Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair.  As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming,” said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of the study.  It seems that the truth in this case is not just “inconvenient” but “incompatible with our general worldview.”  The experiments in this case found that relying on less intense fear-based warnings could be more effective in encouraging individuals to accept the likelihood of global warming, and to work to reduce their own carbon footprints.  This research has implications for the controversial “Reptile” notion that persuasion should focus on the most primitive and survival-conscious parts of the human brain.  If the fear appeal is too strong, then there is a good chance that the ‘reptile’ you are appealing to will simply slither back into its hole instead of considering the positions that you are trying to sell.

Defenders of the fear-based appeal, however, may respond that “yes, but in this case, there genuinely are negative consequences and good reasons to be afraid,” and that seems certainly true in the case of global climate change.  But my point isn’t to say that a fear of consequences plays no role in persuasion, but rather to say that it depends on how it is framed.  A recent posting in PsyBlog on the influence of positive framing provides a good example of ways to reframe fear appeals as a positive argument.  Looking at a 2008 meta-analysis of 29 studies, this post focuses on the advantages on the positive framing over negative.   For example, compare the following two statements:

1.  If you continue smoking, you will have much greater risk of heart disease, cancer, and death.

2.  If you quit smoking, you will have more stamina, better overall health, and a much longer life-expectancy.

The simple point of positive framing is this:  the second one is better and more effective.  For the litigator, it is a matter of emphasis.  The bottom line is that if your persuasive strategy is a negative focus on ‘fear itself’ (risk of injury, unchecked corporate greed, etc.), then there is a good chance that your jury will turn away from the message.   If, on the other hand, your persasive strategy is to positively sell the advantages of embracing your side (greater safety, more justice, etc.), then your jury is more likely to embrace it.

(Photo by Capture Queen)

O’Keefe, D., & Jensen, J. (2008). Do Loss-Framed Persuasive Messages Engender Greater Message Processing Than Do Gain-Framed Messages? A Meta-Analytic Review Communication Studies, 59 (1), 51-67 DOI: 10.1080/10510970701849388

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