Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Fear as a motivator

Fear as a motivator:
How can we use fear as a motivator?
A Scarecrow, commonly used by farmers to inspire fear in birds and motivate them to stay away

Overview edit

This chapter is set up using questions as headings for each section. The reason for this is so the chapter can be more engaging for the reader, they are questions to keep in mind when reading each section. By the end of this chapter the reader should understand what fear is, why we feel fear and how it motivates us. Each question will go through theories and research that relates to it. A question to keep in mind while reading that will be answered at the end is ‘When is fear an acceptable motivator?’.

Fear is an emotion and evolutionary advantage felt by humans and animals in response to a perceived threat. It is used to motivate a person or animal into engaging in a behaviour that is most likely to allow them to survive. In this book chapter fear will be discussed and will look at the ways in which it is involved in our everyday lives. It will go further in depth to explain what fear is and where it comes from.

Fear is often considered to be a negative emotion, hopefully this chapter will offer a different perspective and show through research and examples both past and modern how fear can be useful in peoples lives. Fear is useful as a motivator as it is an emotion that occurs in response to a threat which requires action of some sort,{{grammar{{ it is a feeling that urges someone to react. This chapter will examine both negative and positive motivating effects fear can have and explain why certain behaviors occur when experiencing fear.

Similar to, but not the same as, fear is anxiety which comes from the same [which?]part of the brain. Anxiety induces feelings of fear and worry but it is not always known what is triggering it. This will also be discussed further on as it also has connections with fear and motivation and will look at the positives and negatives it has to offer.

What is fear? edit

Fear is an emotional reaction that is caused by a perceived imminent [missing something?] of impending threat (Reeve, 2009). Fear causes a change in the body as a means of responding to the perceived threat,[grammar?] this is known as the fight or flight response. Some of the behaviors that occur during the flight of fight response can include running away, hiding or in extreme cases of fear a freeze response.

Fear is a learned response,[grammar?] it can be learned through conscious or unconscious learning[factual?]. It is believed that the amygdala plays a key role in forming the memories for learned fear reactions in both humans and animals (Davis, 1992). Fear can be considered either rational or irrational since it is a cognitive response. A rational fear is one that is appropriate for the situation.

For example, being afraid of venomous snakes would be considered rational due to the threat they offer. An irrational fear is also known as a phobia, an example of a phobia would be a fear of all snakes, even the species of snakes that offer no real threat.

Motivation is is a construct to explain behaviour,[grammar?] fear in this chapter will be used as an explanation for many behaviours.

Are anxiety and fear the same? edit

Anxiety is {{missing} common feeling for many people, they may feel it when they give a public speech, perform in front of a large audience, etc. But is anxiety the same as fear?

When we are afraid we generally know what we are afraid of,[grammar?] anxiety is the presence of feelings of fear but usually without any idea of what is causing that feeling or when there is no real threat. Anxiety, like fear can be useful, for example, when driving in harsh conditions a person may feel anxious and are then motivated to slow down and drive in a way more suited to those conditions. However there can be unhealthy levels of anxiety that negatively influence a persons life[factual?].

Anxiety occurs in the same part of the brain as fear, the amygdala. As such it produces the same response of fight or flight. Reasons behind a persons developing anxiety are not always clear but it is thought to be a result of a combination of genetics and the environment (Mercola (2013)).

Some research into pathological anxiety (Rosen, 1998) has found that when anxiety occurs in people the activation threshold for the neurons in the amygdala is reduced, this creates a state of constant vigilance and awareness in the person. Behavioral responses to stimuli that induce fear are also increased. Because of this state people who experience anxiety may be motivated to do certain things. For example, a person who suffers social anxiety, is motivated by feelings of fear and worry to not engage in social interaction or get involved in social situations. This is one of the negative motivations that anxiety can have on a person.

Why and how do we experience fear? edit

Humans and animals experience fear as part of an evolutionary response in order to survive. The fight or flight response is to keep us out of danger by motivating us to react to a situation in a way so that we are more likely to survive. When we feel fear our body and mind changes, the body releases adrenaline and our heart pace quickens in order to prepare us to either fight or flee. The fight or flight response begins in the amygdala, the same part of the brain that is thought to be a key part in learning fear reactions (Knox, et al., 2010).

Much research has been done to study the amygdala in both humans and animals. Majority of research is done on animals as inducing fear in humans is more challenging in terms of logistics and ethics. The main problem with experiment[spelling?] on animals is you can’t actually know if they are afraid or not because animals cant[grammar?] answer if they are afraid or not (Weitan, 2010). Neuroimaging is a technique that has been used to identify when the amygdala is active during studies, however fear is not always present when the amygdala is active. Neuroimaging studies (Whalen, 1998) on humans have shown that the amygdala is active during times when humans experience fear, but it has also shown to be active when other stimuli not necessarily related to fear are present. One study found that the amygdala was active when a person was looking at photographs of different facial expressions. It is thought that the amygdala is active when looking at facial expressions due to the emotional response they create in a person which is partly processed by the amygdala[factual?].

Is fear something we are born with or learn over time? edit

Figure 1. A Lotus seed head, images of these are common triggers for people who suffer from Trypophobia.

Fear is a learned response to threats and situations (Olsson & Phelps (2004)). A learning theory that is commonly used in research to teach animals fear is operant conditioning. In operant conditioning there is reinforcing and punishing stimulus[grammar?] used in order to learn. Operant conditioning gives insight into how we can develop and learn fears.

A study (Dalla & Shors (2009)) that involved rats used operant conditioning in order to fear condition them. Through operant conditioning the rats were exposed to electric shocks unless they pulled a lever to open a door to escape. They soon learned to pull the lever to avoid the shock. When the design was changed so that the lever no longer worked the rats started to show behaviour signs of fear. In this study the rats learned to fear and showed expressions of anxiety when they were in a situation where they were likely to be shocked.

However, new research has demonstrated that phobias may actually be inherited through genes (Dias & Ressler, 2014). The study trained mice to fear the smell of a cherry blossom, subsequent generations also exhibited fear of the blossom despite having no prior contact with it. This research also provides evidence to how disorders such as anxiety are genetic and can be passed on.

Operant conditioning is the process by which a response is trained to be elicited from a stimulus[clarification needed]. In operant conditioning rewards and punishment are used to reinforce responses to stimulus. Rewards are used to strengthen responses, whereas punishments reduce responses (Weitan 2010). Operant conditioning provides insight into how fear is learned through experience. However we do not always have to experience a stimulus like punishment in operant conditioning to learn fear. A famous experiment known as the ‘Little Albert experiment’ conducted by John B. Watson showed how fear can be learned through classical conditioning, the process by which a stimulus becomes associated with another stimulus to stimulate similar responses (Weitan, 2010). In the experiment Albert, a baby at the time was introduced to different objects and found that he showed no fear towards any of them. One of the items he was shown was a white rat. When he was shown the white rat again later on whenever he went to touch it a loud noise would occur which would shock and make albert afraid. After a few pairings of the rat and the noise albert soon became fearful whenever the rat was present. However the fear also spread across to some of the other items he had seen before and not been afraid of at the time such as cotton wool. While this experiment does have some faults such as being limited to only one child and having no control or that it was potentially harmful and unethical, it does help to provide insight into learned fears. The experiments results could also be used to explain how phobias and severe anxiety develop in people.

A study into a common phobia, trypophobia (fear of holes), conducted spectral analysis on images that were more likely to trigger peoples phobias (Cole, G., Wilkins, A. (2013)). They found these images had a correlation with a range of potentially dangerous animals such as snakes and spiders. The study indicates that the similar characteristics the images and animals share create an association of the two and the fear that is normally felt from seeing those animals is associated unconsciously with holes. While this study did find an association between the pictures with spectral analysis it is not conclusive evidence that these mistaken associations are what actually causes phobias.

How does fear motivate? edit

The fight or flight response uses different behaviors to react to a situation, but how are those behaviors decided? Why do we fight in some circumstances but run away in others? Presented are two relevant theories of motivation that help to explain these questions.

Protection motivation theory attempts to explain the motivation for a particular behaviour we receive based on the perceived threat. The theory was first proposed by Ronald, W, Rogers in 1975 to help define fear appeals. A fear appeal is a message that tries to show a threat that someone is vulnerable to, creating fear and then suggesting a behaviour to avoid that threat. According to protection motivation theory there are four factors that our behaviour is based on. These four factors are;

  1. The perceived severity of a threat
  2. Our belief/confidence in our abilities to react to the situation
  3. Probability of threat occurring
  4. The likelihood that a behaviour (Fight or flight) will work

An example of this comes from a study on teachers use of fear appeals in the classroom to see if it motivated students and whether it contributed to students levels of worry, anxiety and fear of failure (Putwain & Symes (2011)). The fear appeal in this case was the threat of failure for students who did not perform well. The severity of this was considered high as students were told of the educational and occupational hazards of not performing well. The students reactionary behaviour was to study in order to avoid failure. The results of this study found that fear appeals had both negative and positive consequences, while it did motivate students to study it also increased their anxiety and fear of failure.

Fear can also be considered an extrinsic motivator since the motivation is created by environmental incentives and consequences, e.g. a threat. There are links between extrinsic motivation and operant conditioning as the themes of rewards and punishment are found in both. Fear is extrinsic because the cause of the fear is envrionmental, it requires something outside of us to activate.

Which fears motivate us? edit

The truth about fears is they all motivate in some shape or form, the difference is whether or not that motivation leads to positive or negative consequences in a persons life. A common fear experienced that motivates people is the fear of death[factual?]. When people think of death they are afraid of it, in many cases this motivates people in a positive way. In some cases it motivates them to enjoy life more, a common phenomenon of this is called the mid life crisis. Measurements of death anxiety have shown that it is highest in people around the ages of 40-64 years (Castano, et al (2011)). During a mid-life crisis people are more open to trying new things and look to find fulfillment in life.

Even anxiety which can sometimes occur without knowing what causes it may motivate a person in some way. For example a person with social anxiety is motivated by feelings of worry and fear to avoid social situations. Social anxiety affects 13% of the worlds population at some point in their life (Bandelow & Wedekind (2014)). Fears and anxieties, such as social anxiety that have negative effects on a persons life are ones we do not need. People who suffer from extreme cases negative fears should seek help in the form of therapy or professionally prescribed medication.

How can we use fear in a positive way? edit

We should only ever experience fear in appropriate situations. When we have an irrational fear or phobia that affects our everyday life then it becomes something we have to change. There are different ways to remove a phobia, most of the time this is done through therapy. Techniques such as exposure therapy are common in fighting phobias and can also be used to fight anxiety. In exposure therapy a person is gradually exposed to their fear in an attempt to get them to realize the irrationality of that fear[factual?].

The best way we can utilise fear to help us is to keep it rational. If you are afraid of something there should be a genuine underlying reason/s behind what initiates you to feel threatened in some way. Also the level of fear we feel in a given situation is important. An example of this would be that its rational for a person to feel terrified when swimming with a shark, but it’s probably not rational for that person to feel terror when their mother in law is visiting, a more appropriate level of fear would be worried or anxious.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory is a theoretical approach that can be related to anxiety and motivation. First proposed by Leon Festinger in 1957, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress that occurs when a person holds two or more opposing beliefs, ideas or values. This is relevant because the mental stress that is cognitive dissonance can take the form of anxiety. Its most likely that you have experienced cognitive dissonance before, many people feel it in their teens when they experience peer pressure. An example of this would be underage drinking.

A 17 year old goes out to a friends party, he is offered a beer. He know's its illegal for him to drink but he wants to fit in with
his other friends and believes he will have a better time drinking.

In this case the 17 year old experiences cognitive dissonance, however the cognition he has for drinking are greater than they are for not drinking. In order to change this the 17 year old can be exposed to new information such as the risks of drinking at a young age, this could create enough cognition to create enough dissonance that he will choose not to drink. The Australian government introduced a education campaign in 2013 designed to reduce the number of young people drinking. This education campaign was designed to create feelings of anxiety by making the public aware of the risks that they may not have been aware of before. The slogan for this campaign was "Don't turn a night out into a nightmare".

You can motivate yourself by creating cognitive dissonance, if you want the motivation to do something for example losing weight, then research some of the dangers of being overweight. However its important to keep the anxiety at a appropriate level, it should be enough to make you think twice about eating a burger and maybe switching to a salad and not a level of anxiety at which you are afraid to eat altogether.

Can fear be used to motivate people other than ourselves? edit

Figure 2. A poster used to create fear in order to motivate Australias to help with the war effort.

Fear has previously been used as a mechanism to motivate people, it’s not only being used to motivate ourselves but to motivate others as well. A common example of this in Australia is the campaign against smoking which has used shock based advertising of diseases associated with smoking. These images induce fear into people who smoke in an attempt to get them to quit. When the images were first introduced in Australia a phone survey found there was a decrease in the number of smokers by 15% from the previous year (Shanahan & Elliotte (2008)).

However fear has not always been used to motivate people for the better,[grammar?] there are other examples in history of motivation through fear. During World War II there was a massive fear of the possibility of a Japanese invasion of Australia. Propaganda posters at the time capitalized on that fear in order to motivate people to join the army or to help in some way with the war effort. An example of one of these posters can be seen in Figure 2.

The affects that fear has on motivating people has largely being used in modern times by the media. The media has an effect of increasing peoples fears by bring awareness and reporting on certain topics. Research (Nellis & Savage (2012)) into the medias influence on people has shown that the media’s large coverage of terrorism has increased the perceived risk of being attacked by a terrorist by people who watch the news. The increased fear of terrorism motivates people to then watch more related stories presented by the media.

Quiz edit


1 What part of the brain is responsible for learning fear?

The Almond
The Cortex
The Amygdala
The Medulla

2 Trpohphobia is the fear of?


3 In John B. Watsons 'Little Albert Experiment' Albert learned to fear the white rat through what method?

Operant conditioning
Classical conditioning
Psuedo conditioning
Modern Conditioning

Conclusion edit

Fear can be a strong motivator in people’s lives,[grammar?] it can easily shape what a person does and how they react in a situation. Fear can be useful in surviving and improving a person’s life by helping them and motivating them to react to risks appropriately. Fear has being useful in motivating people to change their lives for the better,[grammar?] fear campaigns such as the anti smoking campaigns in Australia have helped to reduce the number of smokers. This article has hopefully shown how fear can be learnt through different methods and that we can even teach ourselves to experience fear.

However, fears need to be kept in check as they can manifest themselves into phobias and cause people to avoid things with no actual risk to them. In order to prevent this people need to be aware of the reasons behind any fears they experience. There needs to be rational reasons for experiencing fear. As well as this, peoples level of fear needs to suit the situation. Feelings of anxiety sometimes help us to avoid situations in which we may be harmed physically or mentally. However feeling anxious all the time can be harmful to our health and cause more negative than positive effects.

If fear and anxiety are kept in check then they are useful in motivating us to better ourselves and keep us alive. Fear is not something to be afraid of, it’s an evolutionary adaptation that many humans and animals use in order to survive. Fear is the ultimate motivator in that it motivates people and animals to survive. To answer the question asked in the overview, fear should be considered an acceptable motivator when the behaviour it motivates is in the best interest of the individual.

See also edit

References edit

Australian Government. (2013). National Binge Drinking Strategy. Retrieved from the Australian Government website:

Bandelow, B., Wedekind, D. (2014). Social phobia. The Neurologist, 85(5), pp. 635-647.

Castano, E., Leidner, B., Bonacossa, A., Nikkah, J., Perrulli, R., Spencer, B., Humphrey, N. (2011). Ideology, fear of death, and death anxiety. Journal of Political Psychology, 32(4), pp. 601-621.

Cole, G., Wilkins, A. (2013). Fear of holes. Journal of Psychological Science, pp 1980-1985

Dalla, C., Shors, T. (2009). Sex differences in learning processes of classical and operant conditioning. Journal of Physiology and Behavior, (97), pp229-238.

Davis, M. (1992). The role of amygdala in fear and anxiety. Annual review of Neuroscience, pp. 353-375.

Dias, B., Ressler, K. (2014). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Journal of Nature Neuroscience, pp. 89-96.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Mercola, D. (2013). What Anxiety Does to Your Brain and What You Can Do About It. Retrieved from the Mercola website:

Nellis, A., Savage, J. (2012). Does watching the news affect fear of terrorism? The importance of media exposure on terrorism fear. Journal of Crime and Delinquency, 58(5), pp. 748-768.

Olsson, A., Phelps, E. (2004). Learned fear of “unseen” faces after Pavlovian, observational, and instructed fear. Journal of Psychological Science, pp. 338-341

Putwain, D., Symes, W. (2011). Teachers use of fear appeals in the mathematics classroom: Worrying or motivating students? British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(3), pp. 456-474.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion. United States: Wiley

Rogers, W, R. (1975). A protection motivation theory of fear appeals and attitude change. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, pp. 93-114.

Rosen, J. (1998). From normal fear to pathological anxiety. Psychological Review, pp. 325-350.

Shanahan, P., Elliotte, D. (2008).Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Graphic Health Warnings on Tobacco Product Packaging executive summary. Retrieved October 20th, 2014 from

Weitan, W. (2010). Psychology Themes and Variations. (8th Ed.). Belmont: Wadswoth

Whalen, J, P. (1998). Fear, vigilance, and ambiguity: Initial Neuroimaging studies of the human amygdala. Journal of Current Directions in Psychological Science, (7), pp. 177-188