Persuasion, Influence and the Fear of Loss

On Thursday night I listened to a show called Radio Lab on National Public Radio. Anyone interested in trying to close the gap between intention and action, whether in yourself or others; anyone who seeks to be persuasive and gain influence over themselves or others,should go to the website and download the broadcast.  It’s a strong reminder that one way to be persuasive–to get yourself or other people to do things—one way to be an effective influencer–is to create in your own mind, or theirs, the thing called  FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt.)

In one segment, a woman who had been trying to quit smoking for years met an old friend who said, “I see you’re still smoking.” The smoker took it defensively, and said, “Alright. That’s it. If I ever smoke again, I’m going to give a $5000 donation to the Ku Klux Klan.” Since the Ku Klux Klan was, in fact, the political organization she hated most, she had created for herself a powerful incentive to never smoke again. She drew a red line between herself and a cigarette–a red line made of FUD.

I am not sure of the outcome of the story (my dinner was on the table), but I believe the two friends shook hands to seal the deal. So in this case, by establishing unpleasant consequences for smoking, she had created an effective incentive for herself: to close the gap  between her intention and her action.

However, in order keep this Sword of Damocles hanging over her head, she also needed  something else.  She needed the desire to be consistent with her promise.  In other words, she needed to feel obliged to do what she said she would do.  She needed to be consistent in front of her friend, and she needed to feel consistent within herself. And guess what?  Most of us need the same thing:  we need respect from others, and we need self-respect.

The fear of loss is a powerful incentive for action.  Whether it’s the loss of respect from others, the loss of self-esteem, or a material loss, much of our behavior is driven by loss-avoidance.

Let’s remember this when we’re trying to influence an audience.   We need to remind them of the benefits of our products and services, AND we must mention what price the audience might pay should they choose not to do what we suggest.

As long as our fear-based arguments are true, they are ethical, and are proven to be persuasive in certain situations.


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