Framing Fear for Fight, Flight & Freeze

Framing Fear for Fight, Flight & Freeze

by Rod Dunne on February 4, 2012

in Entrepreneurial, Human Side

This has been bugging me of late. Every day you and I are bombarded with various messages relating to fears dangers and bad news. This can be in advertising, webpages, e-mails, human interactions and the media. What bugs me is that these fears are often framed without thought of how the recipient will react. That is, whether they will fight, flight or freeze up.

I’ll step you through a couple of real-world examples here that I’ve seen in the last week alone. In each case, by providing details of the fear paired with recommendations for mitigating it could have made huge differences in how I/you/us would react.

How our ancestors learned about fight, flight and freeze: Social psychology 101

Take yourself back to the dawn of time. It’s plain to see how cavemen and cavewomen had a lot of things to be fearful of. Dinosaurs, wild animals & creepy crawlies everywhere. They were able to evolve protective reactions to whatever dangers, dinosaurs or fears they were experiencing.

What resulted is that humans learned to either fight against the danger, run away (i.e. flight) or would simply freeze up in some circumstances.

Coming back to the present day, we’re not that far evolved from our ancestors in one sense as these reactions to fears still exist today. Our brains are hardwired to deal with fears so as to protect ourselves, our family or our community.

Framing Fear for Fight, Flight and Freeze

Social psychology research: Why ‘fear + recommendations’ are so powerful

One of the best research projects to look into this phenomenon was done by Howard Leventhal. He worked along with researchers to help government agencies formulate the right sort of pamphlets to send out to encourage people to get tetanus injections.

The basic type of pamphlets provided pictures and details of the various dangers people should be aware of if they did NOT get the injection. The second pamphlets included all the same information but added additional recommendations for how people could take steps to arranging and receiving tetanus injections.

What the research found was that the second approach (fear + recommendation steps) resulted in a much higher percentage of citizens seeking out treatment. If you think about it for a second you realize that what they were providing was an ‘easy out’. The pamphlets with recommendations provided citizens with a set of steps for ‘flight’ – avoiding the fear/danger in order to survive for another day.

When providing the first pamphlets without any recommendations many citizens simply froze. They didn’t know how to react and didn’t have the impetus to pursue a solution.

The one thing the research didn’t do is attempt to invoke a fight reaction. If the pamphlets had stated that these injections were to be mandatory for all citizens then many people would’ve fought back on the grounds of protecting their own human rights & freedom of choice.

Applications in the modern world

As I’ve been looking into this subject over the past week I’ve been keeping my eyes and ears open for examples. What follows are real-world instances where better framing of bad news, fears and warnings could have resulted in much better responses.

Application: In business, advertising and marketing

So if you’ve been reading this and thinking how can businesses or advertising make money from this then here’s the scoop. Advertisers have been framing messages using fear + recommendations for decades. A quick look at TV or web apps will show you this for yourself.

So many products and services all play upon easing your fears. Everything from acne cream and weight loss diets to website security present a fear and give you a call to action. The call to action may well be to take a trial of their products, a list of steps about how the product will help you solve the fear, etc.

If you leave out the recommendations and steps then there is more chance that the customer will freeze, rather than take the easy-out and gravitate towards your product.

Application: In writing

Understanding how characters and individuals will react within a story is crucial to any type of creative writing, copywriting or drama. You could take for example the idea of a Machiavellian type role that uses words to manipulate and control others. In this case, they use fear along with recommendations to drive people towards actions they themselves want to see happen.

When you start to define characters within a story you should understand how they will react to specific fears or dangers that are placed in front of them. Will they fight, flight or freeze? You may have a strong leading character who’s driven and entrepreneurial so it would make sense that they would fight against dangers that the story presents them. The chances of them freezing up would seem out of character.

Application: In social interactions

Whether you’re having face-to-face discussions with someone or communicating on a social network then there are times you’re going to have to give bad news or raise dangers.

In work life, the worst case scenario is when you have to fire someone from their job. If you don’t frame this along with steps and recommendations regarding how you’d wish them to react then you could find yourself in a very heated argument (i.e. the fight scenario).

Framing your conversations and comments on social networks also applies. Earlier in the week I spotted on Google+ someone posting an article who had received a lot of verbally threatening posts via the social network. They had blocked the individual and was simply stating the situation in a post on Google+ itself. While it was informative to others to highlight the danger of this nasty individual, no indication was made as to what recommendations to pursue.

I’m not suggesting this turns into a lynch mob but proposing to other users that they block the individual would’ve been prudent advice. (As it was, I checked out the spammers own ‘posts’ page and their content didn’t make for pleasant reading so I blocked them anyway).

Application: In media and politics

This is one area where I’d like to raise some big concerns. It’s an area where the media and politics use this technique to manipulate, persuade and coerce citizens.

In journalism it is standard practice to provide both sides of a story to ensure balance. However, modern media (especially TV news) tends to feed upon fears without even suggesting recommended steps. All this does is cause viewers to freeze up and become desensitized to these issues. Good journalism should always be identifying who’s responsible and trying to pull out of them what their steps/recommendations may be.

This past week I saw circumstances of where discussions about overseas wars simply presented the fears and dangers without trying to identify what recommendations and steps going forward politicians are considering or trying to achieve. I don’t envy the role serviceman and servicewomen have in these wars but as an impartial observer it would be good to see some light at the end of the tunnel and the steps being made towards this by politicians.

I’m also aware that in some circumstances messages of fear are provided without recommendations with the goal of actually causing people to freeze. One example of this in Irish politics currently is their inability to process new medical cards to pensioners.

The fear for citizens is that without their medical cards then medication will be too expensive to buy. The longer the government department delays on this, without presenting any form of steps or recommendations to show how they are progressing this, then the greater the chance people will simply freeze up or fight back.

It’s a risky move as those who’ve paid their income tax all through their life specifically to help finance these social rights are rightly putting up a fight in many circumstances.


So these are just a few circumstances I’ve seen. Once you realize how others use this hardwired behavior all of us humans have then you can start to see how others may be manipulating you. Hopefully, it helps you communicate dangers, fears and bad news in a better way.

Key takeaway: Frame fears with your own recommendations/resolution steps to help your readers move towards desirable behaviors.

If you feel others are prisoners of their fears then please share on this post so that more people can be aware of how messages of fear are framed can really affect how they react.

And yes… The previous sentence you just read is a prime example of how I and other creative writers can use the approach for persuasion :)

REFS: Robert Cialdini – 50 secrets from the science of persuasion. This book covers some of the research work of Howard Leventhal and his research colleagues.

Author Rod Dunne...

Blog owner and sole writer Rod DunneI am the owner and sole writer on This is my personal blog detailing troubleshooting tips for small businesses. Posts are based upon 2 decades in consultancy & innovation management within startups/maturing companies.

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