Fear based appeals

Junior (College 3rd year) ・Psychology ・MLA ・10 Sources

Politicians, public health authorities, and the media have utilized fear-based appeals as rhetorical methods to instill dread as an incentive for people to embrace ideas or change their minds and views (Bennett). This speech is intended to influence attitudes and intentions. The strategy is often used in politics and advertising campaigns. An appeal to dread, often known as argumentum ad metum, argumentum in terrorem, or ""argument from unpleasant consequences, scare tactics,"" is a type of argument (Bennet). Using a logical style, Dr. Bennett elaborates this concept as ""If you don't accept X as truth, something horrible will happen to you. Therefore, X must be true.” Dr. Bennett argues that fear is used as a manipulation by people who count on other individuals being emotional and irrational instead of calculating and reasonable. This essay elucidates the impact of fear appeals on immigration laws.

Fears appeals have been in use for so long that they have gained acceptance like any other like-minded thinking perspective. Some of the historical examples in which fear based appeals were predominantly used include Nazism and the Peloponnesian War (On the Coast) some examples of leaders who have used fear to control their nations include Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of China. The two states were known to be dictatorial communists (On the Coast). The sitting president of the United States, Donald Trump has been quoted to use fear as a political strategy in his statements such as “Bad people with bad intentions are flooding our airports” and “Drugs are pouring across the border”.

Psychologists have long debated whether these appeals are productive in persuading the audience, ineffective or even counterproductive. Meta-analyses and literature reviews on this topic have been conducted and studied for the past sixty years. The American Psychology Association has established that fear based appeals have a greater impact on women than men. The APA suggest such appeals have the ability to double the likelihood of change when compared to situations of no appeals or weak ones. Apart from psychologists, sociologists, geopoliticians, political scientists, and marketing analysts have also studied fear appeals. Understanding the historical impacts of fear based appeals on the immigration laws of the United States allows us to comprehend how law proposals are currently manipulated before they are formed. This paper seek to address the research questions listed below.

  • What are the intended effects of an appeal to fear?
  • Is an appeal to fear an effective method of persuasion?
  • Ineffective? Certain genders? Ages? Education?
  • How have political fear appeals worked or failed throughout history?
  • What are the earliest known forms of fear appeals?
  • When have fear appeals failed?
  • Why?
  • How was the anti-Asian attitude propagated in 1882 (Chinese)? 1907 (Japanese)?
  • What were some of the “fears”?
  • What is eugenics and when was this popular in the United States?
  • What was the Exclusion Era?
  • When did the first fears of immigration begin?
  • Whom were they afraid of?
  • Why?
  • What are eugenics?
  • When was this an issue?
  • Who is Elbert Johnson?
  • How has eugenics impacted immigration law?

Literature Review

A large influx of Irish and German immigrants into the United States during the period of potato famine marked the beginning of the negative sentiments on immigration in the country in the 1850s (Doak 3). It began with Congress’s first legislation on immigration, the “Page Law” of 1875 which was meant to restrict prostitutes and convicts from entering the US. Doak recounts that the Supreme Court determined in 1875 that immigration laws of California, Louisiana, and New York were unconstitutional. The court’s verdict ended the jurisdictions of individual states to regulate immigration and led to the formation of a national administration of immigration in 1882. Several other regulations and laws were instituted the years that followed. Continual modifications, replacements, and reinstatements have been done on these laws for the past 142 years since the Supreme Court ruling of 1875.

In the article, “And We Got Here First”, Allerfeldt examines the contributions of Albert Johnson immigrations debates of the 1920s. Albert Johnson was “a key – if not the key – figure in American immigration debates of the 1920s” (Allerfeldt 7). Johnson was responsible for the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1924 that is also known as the National Origins Act or Johnson-Reed Act (Allerfeldt 9). He faced a fierce opposition during the debates with those opposing him claiming that his arguments and opinions being racially skewed. According to Allerfeldt (p. 20), race was a “measure by which immigrants could be controlled.” It was through the National Origin Act that new way of scrutinizing immigrants was implemented. The new plan intended at checking on hugely depending on the nationality of an individual before allowing his or her entry into the country. Some nationalities were pictured as risky to all their entry into the US.

Racially divisive appeals (RDAs) have also been used especially in elections as rhetorical strategies by both the politicians and electorates. Political discourses based on racial segments have been practiced indirectly for a long time without people noticing easily. Some aspects such as poverty and crime are associated with certain races and hence migration of people of such races face difficulties to migrate to the US (Brown, 318). Brown defines racially divisive appeals as statements which stoke racial resentment, justify discrimination against minority races or portrays such groups in a demeaning fashion (Brown 321). The article “Fear-Based Appeals Effective at Changing Attitudes, Behaviors,” by the American Psychological Association concludes that fear-based appeals are effective in changing behavior and attitudes. According to a psychological study in this article, female are more vulnerable to such appeals than males. The same study shows the likelihood of change in behavior and attitude prevalent in situations with fear appeals than in situations without or little-fear appeals (NewsRx Health 2).

Anxiety is known to accompany fear in most cases. When people are searching information on a particular subject, they tend to be anxious with some fear accompanying the anxiety. “Anxiety serves to motivate learning by increasing interest, the desire for information, and information gathering” (Gadarian 133). Gadarian argues that when individuals are searching for information on immigration, they to express some fear because of possibly threatening information. Policy makers are not different when they are fed with unpleasing facts, opinions, and perceptions about immigration. Gadarian discusses how psychological politics change the attitudes, the mind, behavior and attitudes of the people. With reference to the exclusion era from 1882 to 1943, Lee, outlines how the “gatekeeping efforts” are put in place with the perception of preventing dangerous people away from America (Lee 1). After the 9/11 attack, there need for immediate changes to the immigration policies to protect the country such occurrences in future.

Fear appeals have significant effects though under certain conditions (Ordonana et al. 195). Quoting Witte’s studies, Ordonana et al. hold that fear appeals tend to have a positive impact on people without previous perceptions of threat, and also when the perception of such a threat is not exceedingly high. The threat is usually accompanied by a responsive aimed at eliminating the threat through an easy performance by the individual. There are moderating effects caused by variables such as cultural orientation, age, previous perceptions, personal sensitivity to stimuli, sensation. Sensation seeking or a need for recognition regarding the persuasive processes related to fear appeals. Most of the social cognitive theories on fear appeals suggest that threatening information efficient to motivate people to a recommended and safer behavior.

However, Ordonana et al. assert that there are less conclusive empirical findings. According to them, several models try to substantiate the correlation between fear appeals and the corresponding recommendations attached to them. The models are categorized into three groups. (1) Fear as a drive that enhances learning through persuasion. (2) Cognitive perception based on the precautionary motivation which relates to the protection motivation theory. (3) fear as a control process based on the extended parallel process model (Ordonana et al. 196).

In an experiment to find out how people respond to fear, an antismoking film was showed to smokers as well as nonsmokers. The results of the experiment showed that smokers were the only ones who displayed an increased arousal as a reaction to the movie. A conclusion was drawn that such a type of communication can be helpful to manipulate an attitude and anxiety towards smoking. Early studies and theories that gave fear a conspicuous role assumed that fear appeals must provoke a reactive arousal intensively. Fear can have a large effect on an entire economy, community or political system (Pfau 216). Politicians, lobbyists, and government officials use a range of fears such as that of terrorism to communicate their political agendas and draw a wide scale attention. Tannenebaum et al. hold that fear appeals can overwhelmingly influence intentions, behaviors and attitudes (Tannenebaum et al. 1196). Pfau states that under certain conditions, some types of fear like the “civil fear” have the potential sway a public deliberation about the changes the challenges in a community (Pfau 228).


Fear based appeals are influential at personal and group level. It is a strategy which has been used throughout the history of the United States of America in formulating the immigration laws by psychologically manipulating ideologies and the beliefs of Americans. Since the first legislation on immigration was passed by proponents instilling some fear about the Germans and the Irish who formed a huge influx of migrants into the United States. The US has been put on an exceptional level in development from other countries especially the developing ones. The US is perceived as a precious nation with so many opportunities that other nationals want to settle in this land. Policy makers perceive this as a threat to the country because it can result in an excessive influx of immigrants in the country. What the law makers do is to impart fear among the Americans by preaching the possible consequences of such conditions so that the majority feel afraid to pass laws and regulations regarding immigration. Theoretically, this rhetoric will continuously be used to in establishing new laws of immigration in the United States.

Exploration of Questions and Issues

Strong emotions are effective in driving reactions which can influence decisions on policies on matters such as counterterrorism and immigration measures as well as surveillance. It is not necessary that these have logical connections in obvious and clear ways with policy positions but instead they relate significantly in psychological ways. It is not obvious that fear appeals make the emotions irrational or wrong as they are commonly discussed. In contrary to the known perception, emotional retorts have evolved that to serve crucial purposes such as raising alerts among people on incipient vulnerabilities within their environment. The evolved human brain has privileged emotional responses to make associations and reactions quickly than the ones which involve deliberate thinking based on prefrontal cortex. Instead of motivating a person to run away from predators like herbivorous preys in a wild animals setting, the human brain can overgeneralize our fears and attach them to several types of threats on which such responses have to apply.

People tend to shape policy positions as a reaction to the fears and threats in their surroundings. Like anything else, there is uniqueness and variation among individuals regarding their propensity to respond to threats, challenges, risks, fear or anger. Propensities affect certain political beliefs and attitudes including the attitudes matters such as immigration. Individuals with higher levels of social fear are more likely to exhibit pro-segregation and anti-immigration attitudes. More fearful people are very conservative and hence they prefer the way of life to remain as it is without any external interference. This observation is consistent with an argument about the authoritarians’ desire to have a firm leader who can impose order within the political bounds. One of the reasons why conservatives may prefer to have such a leader is because they experience a comparatively enormous level of fear in the presence of unfamiliar people. The naturally fearless people do not feel threat in face of strangers. Doak state that the Americans started the debate on immigration after the influx of Germans and Irish in the country (Doak 3). There is a high chance that the conservatives were responsible for initiating because they felt threated with the presence of the immigrants.

As reported by Allerfeldt, Albert Johnson was the first congressman to initiate the immigration laws (Allerfeldt 9). He must have been a conservative who felt agitated with the rise in the number immigrants in the United States. Using his position and personality, he seized opportunity to ensure to call for changes in the laws and regulations regarding immigration. His bold arguments were regarded by those who opposed him that they were racially biased. Blown talks about the racially divisive appeals which some of the Congressmen during Johnson’s time accused him and as his motive for him to push for changes because he didn’t liked other groups. In reality, it is obvious that those who use fear appeals to drive changes in policies tend to associate with a group of their choosing share their opinions with such groups. The expectation is to instill fear elaborate why they should consider a certain recommendation. Johnson is an example of people who are influential and convincing on others to follow their opinions and perceptions.

Social attitudes and fears against immigration are also related to through a genetic pathway. Aversion to unfamiliarity and uncertainty is one of the aspects that unite these responses. Therefore it is during the times of tumult and upheaval that we can expect these attitude to intensify and become so prominent that they have an unwavering influence on a subject. The potato famine of the 1850s is a perfect example that saw the influx of the Irish and the German into America. The natives started to feel the effects of the famine because the immigrants made the situation unbearable. The natives who were naturally conservative like Johnson could not bear it no more. He had to strategize on how to eliminate the threat within by explaining to the rest of the people the negative impacts of such immigration and gave his recommendation on how to avoid the influx of immigrants in the future. The support that Johnson earned on his policy recommendations partly can as fear appeals. Part of his supports rational saw sense in his suggestions while others only ascribed because of impeding fear.

When fears emerge, they spark septicity among the majority of the people who may fail to adapt to the new conditions. Leaders respond to such situations to enforce policies meant to ensure order prevails and the in-group is protected from the vague threats posed by an out-group. In such political environments, identity lines are defined along sectarian and ethnic terms, but can also align with social categories. During these times, leaders strive a lot to manipulate the emotions of their followers in pursuance of personal political agendas. Sometimes, these agendas have nothing or little to do with aims that followers want to achieve. The truth is that leaders usually seize these opportunity to maximize individual power with little regard to the needs an electorate. Psychological politics discussed by Gadarian is perfectly applied to such situations with followers thinking a leader is acting for their benefit. What politicians do is to conceal their true intentions behind the perception of fighting for the wellbeing of the electorates.

It is worth to note that fear isn’t the only emotion that drives political responses against immigration or any other effort meant to segregate an out-group. Anger is the emotion that responds to immigration. Just the same that fear offers protection, anger is meant to offer defense. What anger defends is a specific privilege in society. Anger is a representation of psychological mechanisms that get agitated when people have a feeling that there is an interference on welfare. When such violations occur, people begin with attempts to prove they are worth in society. However, when such attempts fail, they may try striking to force others put into consideration their welfare by making the right decisions. This is the model used by the minority to voice their grievances in the fight for equality. Groups that feel a violation of their assumptions and expectation on their privilege are the most suitable to this model.

The position of Donald Trump on trade is a perfect appeal to the working class whites who angry on seeing US jobs outsourced to foreign countries such as Mexico. There are some social groups among the class of such people born with a belief that they deserve a privileged position as compared to the minority groups. Policies such as Affirmative action that gives minorities some privileges or outsourcing of jobs to other countries undermine the expectations of those with the mentality that they deserve certain privileges. True to what Ordanana at al. state, fear is a drive that push for change. The drive takes different models but meant for same outcome. Americans who support President Trump unite under the umbrella of salvaging their lost glory from the underserving minorities. They may difer in perspectives on the cause of their predicaments but the goal of trying to restore their position binds them together.

Emotions such as anger and fear that spark reactions against outgroups have massive contributions to blending varied interests in support of strong controls of boarders but excludes immigrants. These emotions also support and sustain an authoritarian instinct that gets activated during the time of perceived threats and uncertainties. Eliminating emotions or striving towards privileges are neither a solution to these conditions. Such attempts are neither realistic nor beneficial since emotions are helpful in making quick and efficient decision. They also offer the foundational aspects of attachment and cooperation to sustain our social, political, and family structures. Without emotions, it is difficult for a person to care about other people. A reasonable solution is to stay vigilant to politicians who manipulate public emotions in pursuit of personal political ambitions. The ways that such leaders use can erode our communal sense and security to real threats that pose the biggest risk on all of us such as the issue of climate change.

Addressing Research Questions

Appeals to fear are meant to manipulate the public to conform to some recommended opinions, suggestions, beliefs, and perceptions. Political leaders and the media are known well for using this technique to wrap personal ambitions in the so called community agenda. The use of appeal to fear is meant to impart on the target group so that people can feel threated by a certain situation whose best solution is the suggested recommendation. The fear appeals capitalize on people’s emotions with the expectations that individuals will be emotionally agitated to do what is asked of them. It is kind of political strategy that does not emphasize largescale ideologies but instead takes advantage of an impending issue to draw attention for the larger population. The main tricky employed in this rhetoric is making a small or average issue appear as a deadly threat to the members of the community.

The effectiveness of persuasions based on appeals to fear depend on various factors such as gender, education as well as age. Psychological studies have shown that women are more vulnerable to fear appeals than men. This observation is consistent with the claim that females are more emotional than males. People’s level of education can also affect the ease with which to persuade them with appeals to fear. Individuals with low intellectual thinking can easily manipulated than those with a good education. The educated ones can think rationally rather than blinding ascribing to what lobbyists try to inform them. The age is another factor that can effectiveness of the persuasion through fear appeals. It is psychologically known that young people can easily get convinced without questioning the logic of ideas. On the other hand, elderly people have an advanced experience in different aspects and therefore, they can question some opinions and ideas to get determine the truthfulness of some ideologies. Therefore the effectiveness of appeals to fear persuasion depends on the factors discussed above.

Political fear appeals have been used throughout history and most of them were successful. Nazism and the Peloponnesian War are some examples of the historical events that used appeals to fear. The Soviet Union’s president, Joseph Stalin and his Chinese counterpart Mao Zedong are known as communal dictators who imposed policies on the subjects. Donald Trump is also said to have used appeals to fear as political campaign tool to curb the continuous increase. His statements of how immigrants are filling the American airports, jobs outsourced to foreign countries, and the Mexicans illegally crossing the border with illegal drugs are all fear appeals. These appeals have always succeeded in history with minimum or no resistance. The anti-Asian attitudes were propagated when the Chinese and the Japanese were excluded from being part of the American labor force because of their race. Increase in the number of unemployed Asians was feared that it could raise the level of crime in America. Destruction of foreign relationships with the Asian countries.

The exclusion era came after the American Supreme Court ruled that state regulations and laws and were illegal and therefore, there was need to establish a central legal framework on immigration. The exclusion was a starting point of the new legal framework on immigration curb the influx of Asians inti America. American society saw it as a solution to reduce the number of Japanese and Chinese from moving to America and taking up jobs meant for locals. However, the affected countries did not take it lightly. It distorted the diplomatic state between the United States and such countries.

As mentioned before in this essay, the fears of immigration began in the 1850s during the potato famine that forced hundreds of Germans and Irish to immigrate to the US. The people who presented the motion and pushed for changes in the immigration must have been afraid that the out-group of immigrants would pose pressure on the resources and hence cause turmoil. An increase in the number of people in the USA during that time would probably cause a threat to the food sustainability. Like an individual who protects oneself when threaten, America was also defending itself against external threats. Although appeals to fear might have been used in this agenda, the outcome of the process of not a fulfillment of personal interest as it has been a common case among politicians.

Eugenics are philosophical beliefs and social movements which argue that the human race can be improved by encouraging reproduction among people traits which are also known as positive eugenics. The term was developed by Francis Galton, a natural scientist. According to the concept, people should be cautious when selecting the person with who to reproduce. Albert Jonson, a key congressman in the US’s congress in the 1920s was person who adored the perception of perfection and uniqueness. The continuous process of amending the laws of immigration can be compared to eugenics to illustrate how impacts the changes are for the good of the society.


Appeals to fear are frequently used by politicians as an effective means of manipulating emotions and reactions of voters. These appeals discriminate against and include: immigrants, specific races, minorities, genders, religions and ethnicities. The anticipated result is to stoke racial resentment and to justify discriminatory behavior and treatment of minorities. These types of appeals have been used since the establishment of the United States of America and sadly, they will continue to be used in immigration reform in this country.

Works Cited

Allerfeldt, K. (2010). ‘And we got here first’: Albert Johnson, national origins and self-interest in the immigration debate of the 1920s. Journal of Contemporary History, 45(1), 7-26. http://www.jstor.org.aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/40542903.pdf.

Bennett, B. (2017). Appeal to fear. Retrieved September 30, 2017, from https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/32/Appeal-to-Fear.

Brown, J. A. (2016). Running on fear: Immigration, race and crime framings in contemporary GOP Presidential debate discourse. Critical Criminology, 24(3), 315-331. DOI: 10.1007/s10612-016-9317-8

Doak, M. J. (2011). ""Immigration in U.S. History."" Immigration and illegal aliens: Burden or blessing?, 2011 ed., Gale. Information plus Reference Series. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://link.galegroup.com/ apps/doc/EJ1529100101/OVIC?u=auraria_main&xid=aa918c47.

Fear-based appeals effective at changing attitudes, behaviors after all. (2015) NewsRx Health, 43. link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A433324458/HWRC?u=auraria_main&sid= HWRC&xid=6d4f1e23

Gadarian, S. K., Albertson, B. (2014). Anxiety, immigration, and the search for information.Political Psychology, 35(2), 133-164. DOI: 10.1111/pops.12034.

Immigration reform timeline: Chronology of events -- 1891 to Present. (2010). CongressionalDigest, 89(9), 258-288. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/ ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=8ad2cfc7-1b45-4a99-ac82-.

Lee, E. (2005). Echoes of the Chinese Exclusion Era in post-9/11 America. Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 1+. http://aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http:// link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A127162253/WHIC?u=auraria_main&xid=b6f1e9b3.

Ordoñana, J. R., González-Javier, F., Espín-López, L., & Gómez-Amor, J. (2009). Self-report and psychophysiological responses to fear appeals. Human Communication Research, 35(2), 195-220. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2009.01344.x.

On the Coast (2015, October 01). Fear in politics goes back to ancient times: Here are 5 examples. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/fear-in-politics-5-examples-through-history-1.3251520

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