Aug 29, 2020 - Science

The science of stoking fear

At a New Hampshire rally last night, the Trump campaign supplied signs saying "PEACEFUL PROTESTER" and "THIS IS A PEACEFUL PROTEST." Photo: Charles Krupa/AP

Corporations and advocacy groups have used fear to sell products and messages for decades.

The big picture: Academics codified it as the "fear drive" method in the 1950s, referring to the idea that engaging with fear can be the motivation for people to buy into anything that would make the feeling of fear go away. 

Punam Anand Keller, a Dartmouth College professor who's researched marketing and consumer behavior, says the tactic is everywhere — from the dentist warning of the severe health dangers if you don't floss, to commercials that lead with the dire consequences of drunk driving.

  • "It only works when people believe in the fear arousing part of the message," Keller says. "For those people who don’t believe, then the message isn’t effective."

Constant "fears and scares," particularly in politics, make a lasting imprint says Barry Glassner, a sociologist and author of “The Culture of Fear."

  • Glassner says fear-based messaging creates the same visceral, fight-or-flee response as coming upon a wild animal: Rational thinking gets much harder.
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