The secrets of motivation: fear or enthusiasm?

An element which appears to be recurrently used in education (both at school and by parents, at home) is fear. Many a time, this is not necessarily a problematic element, but the specter of negative consequences for innapropriate behavior is rather common for the educational praxis. For instance, the student is told at school: ʽIf you don't study now, you will face the consequences later!ʼ. Then, at home, parents emphasize this with: ʽIf you don't do this, I will punish you!ʼ Is motivation by fear really efficient? We can indeed use fear as a motivator, but how can we do this concretely? Where and what are the risks of using it?
Let us see what the specialized literature has to say about this. Janis and Feshback issued a hypothesis according to which the audience of a speaker becomes more motivated to accept his statements if he uses a default level of fear (the induction of emotional tension). In order to test their hypothesis, the two authors conducted an experiment in which they were recommending the appropriate dental care. There were three situations where each message contained a few pieces of information on the effects of dental damage and some recommandations for a better dental care.
1. The message that intended to induce a high level of fear described to the subjects how dental infections can cause secondary infections that can lead to arthritic paralysis or complete blindness.
2. The message with a moderate level of fear was based on describing the common dangers of a poor dental hygiene.
3. Finally, the message with a low level of fear was centered on basic information about dental growth and functioning.
The authors noted that the most effective way to induce a proper dental hygiene to the subjects belonged to the message with a low level of fear. They argued that the message with a high level of fear irritated the subjects, who switched to a defensive behavior of avoidance. They became so frightened after listening to the message that they would rather avoid thinking about the whole issue.
What is the conclusion of this experiment? High levels of fear can cause inhibition.
Is fear nonetheless a powerful motivator?
Coon asks us to answer the following question: how can we learn to enjoy the activities that seem unpleasant or even ʽfrighteningʼ at the beginning? Why do some people jump with a parachute and others bathe in frozen lakes in winter? Fear should have motivated us to choose the exact opposite behavior. What internal spring is triggered – through learning – so that we can overcome this initial inhibition? Are there any other elements that can provide a positive emotional motivation?
The answer is quite simple and can be implemented right away. It is all about developing enthusiasm. (Strong) enthusiasm can be considered a highly intense emotional motivator with an extremely fast level of activation. 


  1. How does this accord with the concept that we are more motivated to take corrective action in response to pain than to encouragement?
    Marketing and Sales professionals are advised to identify the "pain points" of their target audience to get best results.
    Seems to make sense. A bout of tooth ache is more likely to get me to take corrective dental care action than streams of information touting the value of good dental hygiene.

  2. We can't motivate anybody, we can find out which motivations the person has and then try stimulative actions that put at work his/her motivations. Motivation are inner drives, not outside stimulus.