Appeal to Fear (Scare Tactics)


The argument attempts to persuade by invoking feelings of insecurity and fear.



Appeal to Fear is sometimes confused with Appeal to Force. The distinction is this: Appeal to Fear is only a warning. The speaker is foretelling that something bad will happen to the listener, but is not threatening to be the cause of that harm. Appeal to Force is a threat. The speaker will personally do something to punish the listener.



"Goodyear. Because a lot is riding on your tires." [Visual: a baby in a car seat. Outside the car it is raining and the car is slipping unsteadily.]


"Listerine: kills the germs that can cause bad breath."


"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're sending people that have lots of problems. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." - Donald Trump (2015, at a campaign rally)



It is good to be prepared. It is even good to be prepared for some things that are not very likely to happen (depending on the severity of the consequences). There are mathematically precise formulas for determining rational risks when playing games of chance. Believe it or not, these same formulas (based on laws of probability) can be applied to risks in daily life. Indeed, that is just how insurance companies operate. How much should you spend to be prepared for a flood? How much for a fire? The answer depends upon two factors: (1) what are the chances (based on past data) that the disaster might occur, and (2) how much would you loose if it did? In most cases, we can only estimate both the probabilities and the costs, but we can come close enough to make rational estimates.

But people are notoriously bad and estimating probabilities without firm data to go on. We tend to factor in our sense of control more than statistics would truly warrent. Hence, people may be more afraid of being hit by lightning (because it is out of our control), than of being killed in an automobile accident (because we are driving the car). Of course, statistics suggest that the reverse ordering of fears would be more rational. The fallacy of Appeal to Fear imitates rational risk analysis, and so mimics good reasoning, but it exploits our inability to make good estimates in the absence of good data. By exploiting our natural fear of feeling out of control, it makes disasters seem more likely to occur (than they really are) and more devastating to us if they do occur. The fallacy tries to get us to spend more in time, money, and effort on preparing for a disaster than is genuinely rational.


Source: I first became aware of this fallacy from Gerald Runkle, Good Thinking: An Introduction to Logic (1978). Although this is almost certainly not the earliest reference to this fallacy, I have not so far been able to identify an earlier source.


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