The three fears every leader has to know: Why appealing to fear is essential in a crisis
SHARE YOUR SCIENCE: Knowing how to appeal to apocalyptic fear, political fear, and private fear will help a leader name reality in a credible manner and assess which fear to prioritize at a given time.
Shortly after Joe Biden`s inauguration as US President in January 2021, more than 150 influential world leaders sent an open letter to the new President to pledge their support to his vision to combat climate change. The letter was supportive, but it also appealed to fear. The signatories exhorted Biden to lead humanity away from the cliff’s edge:
You can be remembered as the «climate president» who led humanity away from the cliff’s edge. You can transform the world’s energy systems from fossil fuels to clean energy, while also creating an abundance of jobs, reducing harmful pollution, and tackling economic, racial, and health inequality in the process.
If people experience a crisis, the speaker needs to name that reality. Appealing to fear may even serve a constructive purpose if the appeal offers an adequate account of reality.
Bård Norheim and Joar Haga
The metaphor the cliff`s edge indicates that the world is at a point where it may collapse. At a cliff`s edge we are threatened by extinction and death, literally hanging by the tip of our fingernails to avoid falling into the dark abyss.
Three types of fear
You would often hear that a leader should avoid any appeal to fear. Appealing to fear is supposed to be morally dubious. However, a whole host of crises over the last couple of years – the corona crisis, the climate crisis, the energy crisis, and Russia`s invasion of Ukraine – has proved otherwise.
When the going gets tough, an appeal to fear may be both necessary and expected. If people experience a crisis, the speaker needs to name that reality. Appealing to fear may even serve a constructive purpose if the appeal offers an adequate account of reality.
Analysing hundreds of speeches from the last 50 years, addressing the ongoing energy and climate crisis, we discovered that leaders generally appeal to three different types of fear.
The first and most dramatic fear is apocalyptic fear. It is the fear that our very existence is threatened, and that the world is coming to an end – because of a nuclear accident or a climate catastrophe. The second type of fear is political fear. It implies the fear that our society or culture may be at risk. You may fear that the welfare system is about to collapse or that a democratic rule is about to be replaced by an authoritarian rule. The third type of fear is private fear. It represents the kind of fear that threatens the place we call home. It may include the fear of losing your job, your house, or even losing your sense of being your true self.
Prioritizing between different fears
The challenge is of course how to prioritize between the three different fears, when all three of them appear simultaneously: Should the private fear of losing your job or paying electricity bills be prioritized over the political fear that the financial support for the welfare system is about to collapse? Or should the political fear of a resurgence of authoritarian fascism be considered more important than the apocalyptical fear of environmental extinction?
Put more provocatively, could even the fear of environmental extinction imply that we might need to deploy partially anti-democratic measures to combat the problem?
Fundamentally, every crisis forces the leader and her followers to ask whether some fears are more important than others. The appeal to fear therefore comes with the call to make a choice: Which fears are most important, and how should one react based on the appeal to fear? Some scholars of psychology even propose a hierarchy of fears, a set of basic fears out of which all other fears are manufactured.
The distinction between three different appeals to fear – apocalyptic, political, and private – reflects the situational and temporal appeal to different kinds of fear in a particular situation. Every crisis calls for an appeal to apocalyptic, political, or private fear, or perhaps all three of them, but in different ways and on different levels. The point is that the typology of the three fears equips a leader with a rhetorical bandwidth to use in a crisis.
The appeal to fear as moral and rhetorical dilemma
Although the feeling of fear seems to be a fundamental human experience, claiming that an appeal to fear might be justified, seems to open the door to irrationality. The question is whether the appeal to fear puts the speaker in the position of the demagogue. A demagogue is a political leader who exploits an issue or a situation by appealing to the popular desires and prejudices of ordinary people.
This sort of moral and rhetorical dilemma appears whenever we face a crisis. A crisis means the arrival of one or more threats that challenge the way we think, act and structure our lives. Our rhetorical research on speeches over the last fifty years showed that a crucial element in the act of persuasion pertains to the speaker`s ability to name reality in a credible way.
Simply put, fear is not just a state of mind. It is a phenomenon with some sort of reference to the real world. Fear has an intentional object. The speaker therefore needs to give an adequate and persuasive account of reality to offer a constructive response to the feeling of crisis.
Appealing to fear as a way to name reality
Most of us appeal to fear on many occasions, typically when we sense a threat or a crisis. For a leader it is crucial to identify the fears at play at a certain time and a certain place and learn how to speak to that fear in an adequate and perhaps even constructive manner.
The question is therefore not whether one should fear Putin and his imperialist war on the sovereign neighbour country Ukraine, but how prominent that fear should be among other fears. The dilemma of prioritizing between different fears is a question of naming reality, which is a call to leadership and sound judgement in crisis.
Knowing how to appeal to the three different types of fear – apocalyptic fear, political fear, and private fear – will help a leader name reality in a credible manner and assess which fear to prioritize at a given time.
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