Fear of Failure > Promise of Success

Anyone who has been following applied psychology in the past decade has heard of loss aversion–specifically, people react more strongly to the loss of $100 than the gain of $100.  This asymmetry is best expressed in the old startup adage (which predates loss aversion research), “Sell painkillers, not vitamins.”

In my own professional career, I used this several times.  For example, when I was in the Web application performance management business, I always advised our team to focus on the potential losses caused by slow performance, rather than the potential gains of improved performance.  Logically, they are one and the same, but the former elicits a much stronger reaction.

Thanks to Eric Barker’s Bakadesuyo, however, I’ve now learned a further nuance (Via Martin Lindstom’s “Brandwashed”:

In a surprising 2008 study, researchers at the University of Bath, UK, found that the fear of failure drives consumers far more than the promise of success;
the latter oddly tends to paralyze us, while the former spurs us on
(and pries open our wallets). In fact, as the study found, the most powerful persuader of all was giving consumers a glimpse of some future “feared self.”

It may not be inspiring, but painting a detailed, concrete picture of the future self your customer most fears can be frighteningly effective.

In the realm of public health, decades of public service announcements explaining the dangers of smoking had little effect until they switched to a two-pronged attack of showing horribly ill smokers and characterizing smokers as the dupes of the tobacco industry (as opposed to sexy rebels).

A similar technique helped with Crystal Meth…not by focusing on the dangers, but on the fact that taking the drug rotted your teeth and made you look older than your years.

I’m ambivalent about this technique; I am by nature a very positive person.  But a marketer needs to know all the tools at his or her disposal.

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