Why Fear is a Powerful Motivator

Why Fear is a Powerful Motivator

fear is a powerful motivator

Fear: The Dark Side of Gamification

Our community has long extolled the virtues of gamification for motivation. Motivation, however, has many facets. Fear, for example, is a powerful motivator. Could gamification be a heads up version of survival of the fittest? Today let’s play devil’s advocate and look at the dark side of gamification, even if just to better understand it. Because without dark there can be no light.


Gamification is Already in our Educational System

Most K-12 educational systems are achievement based systems. Let’s use the educational system as a metaphor for gamification. We take tests and get a score. These scores become our ranking. And our rankings are sometimes publically displayed, just like a leaderboard. Students must take certain number of classes and get certain scores in order to move onto the next level, or grade. Once we’ve gotten to the highest grade level, we graduate (get our graduation badge).

What is the motivation to participate in the educational system? We may want to believe that students want to achieve high grades and get their graduation badge because they are curious human beings who want to learn about the world around them. But, if this was true of everyone, there would be far less failure. Perhaps our students want that high school graduation badge because they want to move onto getting their college badge. Is that because they thirst for even more knowledge? Because they loved learning so much that they can’t stop?

The realist in me says….no. They want to get a good job (yet another badge). And for with those good jobs come other things. A house, comfort, security, power (all badges or entries on the leaderboard of life). Are students extrinsically motivated because they want to win those badges without internalizing the content? Or perhaps they are intrinsically motivated by the desire to improve their knowledge? What if what they are really motivated by is fear?? And what if that fear isn’t powerful enough for everyone?


Approach and Avoidance Motivation

While we often hear about Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in gamification, they are not the only motivational constructs that are relevant in gamification. While approach motivation is moving towards an incentive or reward; avoidance motivation is moving away from a threat or punishment.

I was a student. I studied chemistry to pass a test, not to understand chemistry. And I passed. And I got my graduation badge. My motivation? Fear. Fear of my parents if I brought home a failing grade. Fear of failure. Fear of not getting into college. Fear of not getting to live the life I knew I wanted. But that was me. What if I never bothered to dream of a better life? What if I didn’t have anything to fear? Would I just complacently accept the system as is and just go through the motions because it was the path of least resistance?

While its easy to see that gamification might motivate people to engage with content, the content itself is where the learning happens. But, the truth is, even the best content (I’ll assume it was good) didn’t motivate me to learn it. The potential benefit of the content area to me personally did not sufficiently motivate me to learn it. I was motivated to pass, not to learn. And I think that is a danger in all of our educational gamification efforts. And that means the best content, and the best gamification still don’t lead to a system of learning.


Fearing the right thing

My least favorite mandatory training is the dreaded information assurance. Many of us in organizations know and also hate this annual pilgrimage to the elearning hell that is IA training. Could a gamification construct motivate us to take it sooner, faster, maybe even better? Sure. But I hypothesize that the real motivation behind taking it is fear. Fear of it reflecting poorly on us, as being seen as a trouble maker, and of losing our jobs. Those are all realistic fears for non-compliance in the workplace. What else motivates you to take your IA course? I’m willing to bet that when asked that question, very few of you said…because I don’t want to cause a security breach that could endanger the information in my organization. And why is that? Why don’t we care? This, my friends, is the real issue. Our gamification systems have been designed to be gamed. And if our learners respond well to them, it might just be acceptance of a frame that they are familiar with.


How do we use fear?

So let’s face it. Fear works. But just like gamification, it doesn’t work for everyone every time. Is fear the best approach? Sometimes. If you work in a factory where you are interacting with dangerous heavy machinery, then the real consequences of your failure to adhere to rules are worthy of being feared. Because they are important to you, likely because you value your life and your body parts. That’s not the reality in most of our lives. Our actions have consequences, and maybe what we need is to better understand those consequences and how we can shape them, not fear them.

Dr. Alicia Sanchez has served as Defense Acquisition University’s Games Czar since 2007 and is the owner of Czarina Games.  Alicia plays, writes about, and thinks about games all day long.

CC Image by Steinar Johnsen


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  1. First off, I really support people who try to look at different motivators and techniques to encourage engagement. Hats off for having the courage to take on fear as a motivator. Go on with being open minded!

    I would agree that fear can be an inner motivation for people and could lead to extremely productive states (attention, performance), for example if you run for your life or you are in danger of being hurt. Anyway, hearing a lot about (old) employee motivation studies especially targeting leadership styles and models, fear has also been analyzed. However, if I recall correctly, most of them described negative or only short term motivation in most cases.

    I do not find the studies and resources on the go, but here is only one for example: “Higher fear of failure predicted more procrastination.”

    You touched on so many sides with this article and I would love to discuss more, because learning is a very interesting environment. There is of course a lot of criticism of how students are rated and with new types of learning evolving there will hopefully a lot of change, but I do not want to start discussing educational practices here (at least not as a comment to a post). The question is really, even if (hypothetically) fear would work for most people as a motivator, should we as architects employ such techniques, which is negative in essence, to motivate (or manipulate) certain behavior.

    Also, in most engagement/gamification situations (also learning) we want to create long-term, long-lasting engagement and provoke intrinsic motivations. As a student I know that I also had some exams where a few days before, my prior motivation seemed to be the good grade or the fear of failing, but I hope and believe this is just a short-term product of my intrinsic motivation to learn and do well (as a part of my way of thinking and my future). High school where you have mandatory classes is a whole different topic.

    Sorry for digressing, hope to hear back and I would love to have the chance to talk with you.

    • Dan! You’re right on the mark! By employing fear (with the exception of life saving techniques), we are probably not eliciting the right motivational construct to result in long lasting internalized learning. I will check out the article you posted! Lets def talk more about this topic, its one of my favorites. I for one would have loved to have found a single example of gamification within an organization that employs punishment as a central construct as well.

    • A English link to Maslow’s pyramid of needs would be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs or http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html. Indeed it is a very important concept to keep in mind in nearly all situations where dealing with people and motivation. I also agree that you have to be very carefully with fear and I would not be a supporter of using this technique as I am convinced of positive (ethical?) approaches.

      However, I do think that it is legitimate to think about other ways (in this case, negative ones). Even though I think the scope of a short blog post might not be enough to paint a cohesive picture of such a critical topic – and therefore lead to potential assumption that not enough areas were looked at. When writing news articles spicy (so people take time to read them), often (in my experience), the scientific/technical part is affected negatively.

      • I agree with you at this point but perhaps we should think on how sensible is the topic about fear and anxiety when we are talking about work & gamification.

        Going to the extreme situation I consider how motivating “Arbeit macht frei” sentence unfortunately was …

  2. Acho que muitas pessoas têm medos que as motivam muito. Seja o medo de perder o emprego como uma simples partida de futebol.