Does fear or positivity produce the best results

For many years psychologists have studied negative emotion such as anger, fear and anxiety, because our flight or fight response to negative stimuli is essential for survival.

During the 1980’s and 90’s big companies such as IBM and Microsoft had picked up on the potential of instilling fear, uncertainty and doubt in the minds of potential customers who might be considering their rival’s products. By causing people to question the merit of other companies and products, they were able to persuade them into a sale.

Marketing, sales and HR have all used fear to persuade people for their own success, however focusing on the negative can be limiting. From a neurological point of view, once our brains realise that the fear stimulus is not an immediate threat we are likely to ignore it.

It is true that our attention automatically zaps to negative messages and many think that this is an overriding factor in persuading people to buy however this is in fact a misconception. Just because our attention automatically goes to something, we will not necessarily take action because of it.

Once the brain realises that the stimulus is not an immediate threat, it is likely to ignore it, making the process highly ineffectual if it is reliant on people taking action. So whilst businesses for years have used people’s vulnerabilities to cajole and sell to, there are many prospective clients who are simply not being ‘captured’.

The retail industry tends to understand this more than the financial industry, but there is much room for improvement across the spectrum. Motivation to buy or invest is far more effective when positive stimuli are used because areas of our brain seek out to approach reward.

In recent years, partly due to the advent of modern neuroimaging techniques, research has also embraced studying positive emotion. Finding positive emotional messages helps us feel good, which in turn attracts us and makes us want more. Positivity generates hope, resilience and a sense of control and we are more likely to actually do something when we are attracted to the idea rather than frightened towards it.

A good example is our motivations to write a Will. We all know we should do it, but we avoid it because it makes us think of our own mortality. But if we consider leaving money in trust to help our grandchildren go through university, this positive feeling can help us embrace the idea and action it.

The same phenomenon is seen in business on an individual level. We all choose the more interesting piece of work to do first, or work a bit harder on our favourite clients. We fulfil the jobs that offer us rewards first.

Positivity works and that is why it is more crucial to the success of business than focusing on fear-inducing tactics. We are simply more galvanized when feeling positive rather than negative and businesses need to strive to take this into account if they want to become or remain leaders.


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Dr Lynda Shaw

Dr Lynda Shaw, a cognitive neuroscientist and chartered psychologist specialising in the psychology of ageing and business improvement. A hugely popular speaker with an innovative, practical and immediately applicable approach, Dr Shaw offers insights into a variety of relevant and often controversial issues.

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Dr Lynda Shaw, a cognitive neuroscientist and chartered psychologist specialising in the psychology of ageing and business improvement. A hugely popular speaker with an innovative, practical and immediately applicable approach, Dr Shaw offers insights into a variety of relevant and often controversial issues.