“Wash your hands before dinner!”
A necessary chore for most kids, it was all we needed to prolong our lives. Until hand sanitizers hit the consumer market in 1997. Shortly after, the transparent goo that smells like doctor could be bought in every convenient store across the country. What happened?
Studies showing fecal bacteria being found on 42% of all bank notes or that 30% of New York’s airport passengers skip hand washing after using the bathrooms stuck with us. And despite the FDA not finding medical studies to show an actual link between consumer antibacterial products and a decline in infection rates, people keep squeezing and sanitizing with an almost religious zeal. What happened?
People are so afraid of getting sick that they cling onto their travel-sized bottles even when the government tells them using soap is as effective.
Fear is one of our most potent motivators
It’s not the only one, but once it kicks in we tend to drop everything else. With hundreds of distractions battling for the attention of our audience everyday, fear can help you turn skimmers into readers. But to use it effectively–and ethically–there’s three points to consider:
- What makes fear such a powerful emotion
- Why you can’t just create fear
- When fear is useless
1. What makes fear such a powerful emotion
It might sound counterintuitive, but our brain looks all day long for reasons to be fearful. We scan our surroundings continuously for any sign of danger–when crossing the street, watching the news or even when we didn’t bring out the trash. The reasoning behind is simple. We have a lot to lose, and a small incident could cost us anything from our peace of mind to our lives.
Most of the time, we’re not aware of it because the scan runs in the background of our brains Extra resources. But as soon as there’s a red flag, all higher thinking gets bypassed and we switch immediately to our infamous fight-or-flight response. No more weighing of pros and cons. No more mulling it over. We are biologically compelled to act immediately.
That’s why in most cases, you’d gloss over the latest celebrity gossip headline when find an article about a robbery in your neighborhood right next to it. But as powerful as that sounds, as writer you can’t just create fear.
2. Why you can’t just create fear
We’re not going to be afraid of sheep because someone tells us to. There has to be an existing foundation for it. Lions are an entirely different matter. We’ve read enough books, heard enough stories, watched enough movies to have seen the devastating effect of a lion. Even when never having faced one ourselves. Or spiders. Hearing the mere word sends people running, screaming or trampling. Specific people. Arachnophobics.
So instead of trying to come up with an imaginary danger, you’d have to understand your audience enough to know what they are afraid of. It doesn’t even have to be a fear per se. It can be a problem they have. A struggle to overcome. Because whenever a problem rears its head, a tail of consequences lingers close by. Consequences–we’re afraid of. Don’t try to invent the fear of your audience, get to know it.
3. Where fear is useless
No amount of fearmongering will not compel anyone to act if there’s nothing to be done. Fear itself pushes us out of our comfort zone. But to fight–the fear, the problem-we need a chance. Otherwise we just run away. Your fear-inducing headline might jolt your audience into reading your article. Without a solution to direct their energy though, soon they falter and eventually read elsewhere.
Not only need your solution be realistic, your readers also need to see themselves applying it. No point in offering a $10,000 trip to the Amazonian jungle to overcome their Arachnophobia if your reader lives in Cleveland and makes $2,500 a month. A visit to the zoo where a veterinarian supervises them holding a small harmless spider would be more applicable.
When deploying fear becomes unethical
Using fear to draw someone into your article might seem unethical, if not downright manipulative. But that’s the case for any introduction you write. If you win your readers through fear, curiosity or desire makes no difference as long as you do it on purpose. They are just different means to the same end.
And that end is what matters: the outcome. You won’t be judged for how you got them to read. You will be judged for what you gave them in return. Nobody will think less of you if they end up better afterwards. On the contrary, they might thank you.
The good, the bad and the ugly about fear in your articles
Fear is potent motivator. Powerful enough to put a hand sanitizer in virtually every bathroom in America. Programmed to survive at all cost, fear allows us to focus our energy exclusively on the matter at hand. But it cannot be created, only tapped in to. And fear will only ever lead anywhere when you can offer a way out, a solution.
Don’t be afraid of making people afraid. If your article helps people, they will thank you for it.