I Explored The Psychology Behind Fear Mongering In The Media

Written by our PR intern and university student Bridie Buckingham

I was wondering about what to write on the Source blog this week, until a spirited office conversation piqued my interest. Whilst discussing some current media trends the phrase fear-mongering cropped up several times and I began thinking, beyond the obvious, just what does fear-mongering (or indeed scaremongering) mean in the world of media, PR and communications?

Google defines fear-mongering as “a form of manipulation which causes fear by using exaggerated rumours of impending danger.” Fear-mongering can make people anxious about the wrong things and use an excessive number of resources to avoid rare and unlikely dangers, while more probable dangers are ignored. For example, some parents have kept their children at home to prevent abduction, whilst paying less attention to more common dangers such as lifestyle diseases or traffic accidents. In short, it can be dangerous. So why do we fall victim to this type of messaging so often?

Why Does It Work So Well?

According to evolutionary psychology, humans have a strong impulse to pay attention to danger due to the awareness of dangers being important for survival throughout our evolutionary history. This effect is then amplified by cultural evolution, as the media caters to our appetite for news about dangers – world floods, civil unrest and a Covid-19 third wave to name a few – and that’s just in the last week!

What Psychological Effects Can It Have?

Fear-mongering can have strong psychological effects, some intended and some not so intentional. One hypothesized effect is ‘mean world syndrome. This is where people perceive the world as more dangerous than it is inhibiting their daily life and optimism for the future. Perhaps the scariest impact that fear-mongering can have is the ‘rally around the flag’ effect, which is most commonly seen in increasing support for incumbent political leaders. To give you an example, official warnings about the risk of terrorist attacks led to increased support for Donald Trump which eventually led to his election in 2016.

How Often Is Fear-Mongering Used?

Fierce economic competition over the years has led to commercial mass media relying extensively on scary stories and bad news in a competition that has been characterised as an ‘emotional arms race’. Stories about crime, and especially violent crimes and crimes against children, figure prominently among newspaper headlines. These stories sell. Though not overseas, an analysis of US newspapers found that between 10 and 30% of headlines involve crime and fear, with a tendency to a shift of focus from isolated crime events to more thematic articles about fear. The story is not so different over here on home turf. In the UK, media outlets often use gory sex crimes as a parameter of competition. The continued focus on emotionally touching sex crimes has had a strong influence on politics and legislation today.

Where Does It Occur?

Aside from the aforementioned used in the media, advertisers have also entered the arena with the psychological discovery that ‘fear sells’. Ad campaigns based on fear, sometimes referred to as ‘shockvertising’, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Fear is a strong emotion, and it can be manipulated to persuade people into making emotional rather than reasoned choices. Think car commercials that imply that having fewer airbags will cause the audience’s family harm, and disinfectant commercials that show pathogenic bacteria lurking on every surface… Fear-based advertising works.

Recent Uses

Fear mongering has been rife in the news of recent for obvious reasons. And whilst it is important, we know the facts and are aware of the statistics, perspective is paramount but often discarded. My colleague recently reported that there are over 2000 covid patients being admitted into hospital every day and I was shocked. I thought “wow that’s a huge number, that has got to be near enough everyone admitted into hospital in a day” – how naïve of me. According to official statistics, there are approximately 50,000 people admitted into hospital every day. After that revelation, I was now seeing those initial figures in a new light. That is the power of perspective. The news delivers stats like this every day but consistently fails to put them into context. The huge number puts everyone on edge when there’s no need. I remember at one point, during the first lockdown, the coronavirus death rate was lower than the rate of people dying from the flu every year. I don’t think I have EVER been scared of dying from the flu, however, I was terrified of catching and dying from Covid-19 many times in the past 18 months.

Going Forward

These figures should not be disregarded, nor the lives that sadly contribute to these figures, but perhaps instead of the consistent fear-mongering delivered by the press, how about a little more perspective. I’m sure we’d all like to breathe a little sigh of relief after the last 18 months, however, this will never happen if scare tactics like those we see every day continue. As marketers and communicators, we have a responsibility to relay messages ethically and use honest and genuine tactics to sell our stories, as opposed to putting fear into people. This remains an ongoing problem, and one the communications and media industries ought to actively tackle.