Numbers > Number 19 > Discourse of fear: why emotion convinces us more than reason
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Discourse of fear: why emotion convinces us more than reason

15 de agosto de 2022
20 de agosto de 2022


The discourse of fear consists of communicating risks, assuring us that there is something to fear, with a narrative of control that ensures that we are kept safe through a certain intervention. This mass discourse through networks and mass media has a predominance of emotional content over rational content. Fear is used as a powerful source of persuasion as it makes our vulnerability salient, activates the desire to survive, and increases snap decisions not grounded in careful, central thinking. The objective of this article is to address, from the literature of social psychology, how persuasion through fear works, how it activates heuristics and peripheral routes, and the effects it has on decision-making. From this literature, an example of political messages about a Mexican ruler, its content and its repercussions on the electorate is analyzed. Finally, the way in which people receive information is discussed and the passive role assigned to them is questioned, where they are assumed as mere recipients and not transforming agents. In the same way, the limits of the discourse of fear are discussed.

1. Introduction

Persuasion is the process by which a message induces a change in beliefs, attitudes or behaviors. In itself, it is neither good nor bad; as Bernays (1923, as cited in Marlin, 2013, p. 9) points out, it is relative, «the only difference between good and bad propaganda, really, is the point of view: the defense of what we believe we call education. The defense of what we do not believe is propaganda. However, beyond subjective judgment, it is possible to define propaganda as an organized attempt from communication to affect beliefs or action in such a way that it does not seek to adequately and rationally inform people» (Marlin, 2013). Persuasion and propaganda are everywhere: in marketing, friends, religion, advertising. Whenever a group interacts, some members will try to convince others of their point of view, be it in a jury that decides the guilt or innocence of a person, the board of directors of a company, legislators and of course, in speeches. from power.

In general, power prefers messages of an emotional nature, as it seeks people to take a position quickly and legitimize their actions. Although positive emotions can also be used to persuade, fear has more pronounced effects as it reminds us of our mortality, igniting our desire to survive and leading us to take cognitive decision shortcuts for preservation. This is where the discourse of fear makes sense.

What characteristics does the speech of fear have? Why is it so effective? In this article we discuss how messages from power, shared through the mass media, are processed by people and what effects they have on behavior. We give an example of how the developed theory allows us to understand a successful discourse of fear and finally, we seek to question the passive role assigned to people, as mere recipients of information instead of active agents.

1.1 The culture of fear

Fear is a primary emotion, together with joy, anger and pain, which motivates us to avoid a danger that is usually external.1 It results from the consequence of recognizing the absence of power in a threatening situation (Corsini, 1994). Social fear may not be related to what is happening: the subjective perceptions and emotions of people do not have to correspond with the objective figures.

The perceived probability that something in particular could happen to us (concrete fear) can be different from diffuse fear (the fear we feel), since what is important many times is not what could happen, but what we believe could happen to us (Chávez-Váldez & Esparza-delVillar, 2017). In addition, people’s fears may be far from what the media presents as the central message, highlighting other elements and showing that people not only can, but actually have their own fears. For example, in Mexico the list of fears is headed by losing a relative (Hernández-Pozo et al., 2009) while in the United States there are snakes and speaking in public (Brewer, 2001).

For his part and in the same sense, Furedi (2002) mentions that as a society we perceive multiple threats: terrorism, global warming, flu epidemics, weapons of mass destruction, diet and lifestyle. He believes that fear has been politicized to a point where the debate is no longer whether or not we should be scared, but rather what should scare us. It is worth asking if the fear we feel now is different from that of other times. Furedi (2002) warns us that it is impossible to know if we now feel more fear or less, since its meaning changes over time and this makes it impossible to compare the levels of fear: even if we found that the levels are the same, they would have different meanings for people of each era. However, this author proposes that there is something different today compared to other times: more than real risks having increased, the meaning of damage is what has been inflated. At the same time, the term vulnerable is used more to describe people, as if they were believed to be more easily hurt now. This causes greater emphasis on emotional fragility and the impotence that individuals have to face adversity.

What has caused an increase in people’s fear agenda? Surely one of the answers has to do with digital technology that has reduced and in some cases has eliminated the limits of space and time, which makes it possible to find out what is happening in various parts (Flamarique & D’Oliveira-Martins, 2013). This has meant that experience is no longer the most transcendental, but rather the moment, which can occur through a video, a narration (e.g. a tweet) or a photo. The objective then is not what one lives, but what emotions these experiences provoke, being essential to maximize the amount of emotion experienced.

This allows us to glimpse that even when the media release information, people do not receive it passively. Instead, they look for what excites them and are able to select or discard information that they consider exaggerated or excessive. For example, when faced with apocalyptic information, people may remain immobile or consider that something that is exposed as risky is not really so (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Thus, contrary to what some academics such as Margee Kerr (as cited in Furedi, 2002) consider, the media are not fully responsible for the culture of fear. The media do not dictate what to feel, instead they are a pervasive social institution that provides us with a changing agenda of our fears, selectively directing our attention to certain threats. This has definitely extended the fears of things that we directly experience to those that we no longer see or hear (Smolej & Kivivuori, 2006).

For example, in a study on the fears faced by Mexicans, it was found that the most frequent fears are material loss (e.g., robbery with violence and economic extortion) and damage to the person (e.g., disappearance, kidnapping and sexual assault) (Chávez-Váldez & Esparza- delVillar, 2017). In this sense, people experience fears that come from first-hand experiences or close accounts, which implies that the media have not produced these fears in all people, rather in many cases they have exacerbated them (National Institute of Geography and Statistics [INEGI], 2021).

UA broad fear agenda is not by itself negative, some consider that the agenda offered to us by the media has the prerogative of broadening our horizons and making us more aware of what is happening in other countries (Lama, 2014), which activism has taken advantage of to cross borders and turn local problems into global causes, turning us into global citizens (Peña, Paredes & Solis, 2019). At the same time, it has the disadvantage that it fills us with emotions in the face of causes that we often cannot solve, since they constitute invisible enemies, such as forced disappearances, where the threat is faceless.

Thus, the media have increased the fear agenda, making it more global and abundant. This has caused a magnification of our emotional experience in the face of external events, which is combined with a pronounced and greater perception of how vulnerable we are. Faced with this reality, the story of politicized fear aims to offer a system to make sense of the world and gives us a series of assumptions that allows us to understand and respond to threats (Furedi, 2002). In other words, a fear-based discourse from politics tells us what to do and how to react to the fear we feel, how to reduce it, and at the same time promises to lessen the threats we face. How do fear messages become so powerful and manage to conquer all attempts at careful and rational thought?

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