Opinion: Which works best, fear or hope?

While often lambasted for being a negative method of persuasion, fear-based communications can be very effective in one-off scenarios.

Chris Graves

The US presidential election circus is underway. Much of the language and the dark imagery of political ads stoke fears — fears of ISIS, fears of immigrants, fears of job losses and even of the end of the American way of life. The feelings range from High Anxiety to Zombie Apocalypse.

Midst all this, a sweet, upbeat, lyrical ad from Senator Bernie Sanders floats above the detritus to the strains of Simon and Garfunkel.

Suddenly, this ad, this bright, hopeful poem generated huge coverage as the breakthrough approach: hope nobly rising above the cynical sewage of fear mongering. But does hope work really better than fear when it comes to persuasion?

One meta study of 127 other pieces of research (Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories by Tannenbaum, et al) found that fear-based approaches can be highly effective, especially for a one-off situation, and when a specific action is recommended.

Fear-based communications activate the amygdala, the fight-or-flight control centre of the brain, and get your attention better than a hope-based message. A generality, based on several brain studies, may be that fear resonates better with conservatives, and hope with liberals.

In several studies, Ted Brader, of the University of Michigan, found that ‘mudslinging’ decreases engagement while fear-based raising of broader issues increases engagement.

Steve Denning, author of The Secret Language of Leadership, contends that communications to drive change in a corporation should first wake up the audience with a negative or fear-based story, but then must turn the corner to a hopeful story to actually mobilise people into action.

So rather than fear versus hope when it comes to persuasion, perhaps it should be fear first, then hope.

Christopher Graves is global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, chair of the PR Council and a trustee of the Institute for PR. Follow or tweet him at @cgraves.

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