GreenWorks Newsletter - The Only Thing We Have to Fear... - Business Recycling

The Only Thing We Have to Fear...


Fear is a great motivator right? It's used to motivate action in public health and driving campaigns as well as to sell lots of products. Many people would argue that the most fearful issue we are facing, as a society, is environmental destruction, particularly in relation to climate change.

So, when you are trying to encourage your colleagues to switch to more environmentally sustainable behaviours what role can fear play and what pitfalls should you avoid?

Motivating Fear

A classic experiment, conducted at Yale in the 1960s, was designed to measure how fear could be used to motivate action. Students were given an information pamphlet encouraging them to get a tetanus shot. Some students received a 'high fear' version of the pamphlet, which used powerful language and vividly frightening images while the 'low fear' group received a version with toned down language and no images.

A month after receiving the pamphlets the researchers followed the students up to see whether they had got their shots and compared the immunisation rate between the high and low fear groups. If fear is a good motivator then we'd expect the 'high fear' group to have a much higher inoculation rate.

They didn't! Just 3% of the students got their shots. The experimenters were confused so went back to see if the students had understood the risks of tetanus. To their surprise, the reports showed the students clearly understood the nature and seriousness of tetanus as well as the importance of being vaccinated, they just hadn't done anything about it.

The Trick to Using Fear

The experiment was re-run with a few differences. Specifically the pamphlet was re-written to include instructions on how to deal with the threat of tetanus as well as a map of the university medical centre and its operating times.

This time 33% of students got their shots – a 10 fold increase.

This experiment was the first in what has become a long tradition of research looking at fear and motivation. There is now a good understanding of the conditions needed to effectively use fear to create change. Those conditions are:

  1. The audience needs to believe they will be affected by the threat,
  2. That when it affects them, it will be painful (eg physically, financially or emotionally) and
  3. That they have the ability to avoid this pain.

Without the ability to avoid the threat or the pain the natural human condition is to avoid thinking about it, to ignore it, to deny it or to become angry at the messenger. In the tetanus experiment the provision of the map and opening hours gave the students the ability to do something about the risk of tetanus - it reduced their paralysis.

Environment of Fear

Workplace appeals like 'Save the Planet – Turn Off the Lights' and 'Save The Trees – Don't Print This E-mail' along with images of melting ice-caps or tropical forest fires are actually fear-based messages. They imply the loss of the planet or 'the forests' if people don't undertake the specified actions.

Apart from being a bit dramatic these messages aren't great motivators, as they don't meet the criteria listed above. The audience won't be personally affected (at least not in a short term measurable way) if they don't turn off the lights or read off the screen. They are, therefore, much more likely to dismiss the message and the related action.

Positive Action

There are a number of implications of this research into fear-based motivation. They are:

  • Fear alone does not persuade, it paralyses.
  • Such messaging will only be effective if it meets the three criteria above.
  • If your message doesn't meet these three criteria then try another persuasion strategy. A positive social norm like 'Most of our staff choose to read e-mails on screen' will be more persuasive than 'Save the Trees – Don't print this e-mail'.

Fear has its uses. It's important to know what they are and when they'll be effective. If you're unsure then try another approach.

Further Reading

For more tips on creating positive change see other articles in our Behaviour Change Made Easy Series.


Yes! 50 Secrets From the Science of Persuasion. N Goldstein, S Martin and R Caldini (

The Daily Egg Blog - How To Sell Using Fear

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