Fear is an exceptionally potent motivator. And there is a reason for this: fear bypasses rational thought, acting directly on the “fight or flight” reflex that has keep our species alive for literally millions of years. By tapping into deeply subconscious feelings, fear can be used to compel us to do things we ordinarily would not consider doing; sometimes for our own good; many times not; and, a lot of times, into doing frivolous things for which the outcome is irrelevant to us — except for the fact that it draws our attention away from that which we should be focusing on.
So, how is this done? First, the innate fear that will be leveraged has to be identified, and exist in the target audience’s subconscious. Even campaigns used to “manufacture” fear need to rely on some seed of deeply buried feeling, usually at the genetic (“lizard mind”) level, to use as a framework upon which to build a message. This is a fundamental requirement: if there is no source fear, then fear cannot be used as a motivator.
Second, a message has to be crafted to express to the target audience how it is (a) deeply vulnerable to whatever is causing the fear, and (b) subject to profound loss in case of delayed action. If people do not perceive themselves to be vulnerable, or do not believe that procrastination will result in expensive, or otherwise highly damaging, outcomes, then the predictable response will be “so what?”
Finally, a solution must be presented that alleviates the fear. For organizations or people trying to sell something, this is the whole purpose of the evolution: now that they have shown you how susceptible you are to some great loss that will happen if you don’t take immediate action, here’s how they can help you solve the problem (for a price).
Now, there are at least two compelling issues with this strategy that I can think of. One is that, even if the fear is discounted, it still resides in the subconscious as an echo of the underlying fear. And, when exposed to enough of these messages, the echoes can build up to the point where they drown out rational thought. At this point, people either become numb to real dangers, or they overact to everything. Do you ever wonder why our society has become so neurotic? Think about how many fear messages you receive just in the course of one day! Whether the message is that you are too fat (or too skinny), not cool enough, not “tech” enough, not prepared enough, not fearful enough of others — the net effect is a cumulative erosion of the rational thought process that is critical for a healthy existence.
But the other, more insidious issue is when there is no release; when the purpose of the message is to specifically create and maintain a heightened state of stress and fear. Consider this: it is a well known fact that people in a heightened state of stress and fear do not make good, rational decisions. And, if society as a whole is in a heightened state of stress and fear, then it follows that society will not make good, rational decisions. And, since history teaches us that people and societies in a heightened state of stress and fear will seek solace in worshiping mythology over accepting hard reality, then what better way to move societies and people in directions they normally wouldn’t go than to (a) perpetuate a heightened state of stress and fear, and (b) market yourself as the savior – an object worthy of worship.
Tinfoil hat stuff? I don’t know. But I do know that there is a lot of fear going around, and, consequently, a lot of bad decision making. And that fear is being used to drive our society in directions that seemed far-fetched even only ten years ago, whether on the validity of kidnapping and torture, reduced civil rights, perpetual war, the need for killer drones, the inevitability of climate change, whatever. And it does seem like someone is either actively pulling the strings, or opportunistically using the current state of stress and fear to pursue an agenda counter to what most people would normally support (or both).
Bottom line: if you are feeling fearful, the best thing you can do is stop, consider the message, determine the agenda behind it, and try, as best as possible, to make a rational and informed decision. There are very few situations that are so fearful as to require immediate, non-considered action. Anything else is merely being manufactured for the purpose of control.
Fear is the mind killer. Don’t lose your mind.