100% more powerful


An amateur philosopher once suggested to me that there are two primary driving forces in life – love and fear. She suggested that every human behaviour or trait has its roots in one of these two forces.

I am not sure this is so, but I am sure that fear is a very powerful influencer and even driver of human and therefore consumer behaviour. While it may not always or even often be recognised fear is a powerful driver of purchase behaviour.

In this article, I will address three common fears:

  • Fear of loss.
  • Fear of difference.
  • Fear of failure.

Experimental research has found that fear of loss is twice as potent as a driver of behaviour as desire for gain.

This can be readily demonstrated in our differing responses to a $50 parking fine. Most people get distressed when they get a $100 fine, and indeed that is why local governments issue such fines. This is despite the fact that the same person might feel nothing of gambling a similar or larger amount, or spending it on something wasteful.

This phenomenon is leveraged by marketers when they promote the fact that ‘stocks are running out’ or ‘this sale has only 2 days to run’. In such circumstances people will buy things that don’t really want, just because of the fear of loss.

Experimental research has also demonstrated that fear of being different is twice as powerful as the influence of facts.

A study found that people faced with Android and Apple smart phone options at the point of sale, were twice as likely to buy the Apple product – even when they believed the Android product to be superior. They were motivated by the fear of standing out.

This phenomenon is leveraged by marketers when they position one of the options as being more popular – or more in line with common behaviour in a particular cohort with statements like ‘this is the best-selling smart phone in the world’.

Experimental research has also shown that fear of failure is a more powerful motivator that the desire for success.

There is evidence to suggest that the success of funeral insurance is driven by a fear of letting the kids down by leaving them with a debt. A similar thing is found when people invest in life insurance ahead of trying to build wealth that will make it unnecessary.

This phenomenon is leveraged by marketers when they use statements like ‘don’t leave you family out of pocket’…..’ or ‘don’t let your children down..’.

The fact is however while fear is perhaps the most powerful driver of consumer behaviour fear based campaigns are often not successful. For example there is evidence to suggest that fear of death is not as effective as it once was in reducing the incidences of smoking, drinking or drug use.

Three possible reasons for this are:

  • The perception that – it will not happen to me.
  • Systematic desensitisation through over exposure.
  • The perception that the risk is a long way off.

To be truly effective fear has to be personalised. Repeating a threat over and over runs the risk of creating the ‘man who called wolf’ syndrome. The negative consequences need to be relatively immediate.


  1. Fear is one of the most powerful drivers of consumer behaviour.
  2. Fear of loss, difference and failure are all powerful motivators.
  3. The impact of fear on behaviour can diminish over time.
No tags