Perceiving, Feeling, and Acting on Fear

Scientific American recently published a lengthy (30+ pages) overview of the science of fear, based on a discussion between some of the leading thinkers on fear and emotion from a wide range of backgrounds and research approaches. It is well worth a read if you are interested in the topic. You can find a short introduction to fear here and the Scientific American article here.

Despite their very different perspectives, there is ultimately a great deal of agreement in the common themes that emerge from the discussion. There is also an important theme that the perception, feeling and behaviours associated with fear are highly context specific. As Joseph Ledoux says, “fear is a conscious awareness that you are in harm’s way”. However, he continues that, “although danger is universal, the human experience of being in danger is personal and unique”.

This is consistent with Lisa Feldman Barrett’s view that fear is a conscious interpretation of events (environmental, biological and mental experiences), which are personal (and often culturally shared) rather than universal. As she says, “Features [of fear] are physical (for example, neural, physiological, chemical) and mental (perceptual, affective, cognitive, etc.). In this view, the brain works by prediction and correction rather than through stimulus and response”.

I think this is the most useful way for marketers and market researchers to think about fear or any other emotion. Human behavior is directed at achieving goals, and emotions reflect the meaning of events (perceptual, biological, cognitive) in helping us to achieve those goals. If you understand people’s goals and the emotions associated with those goals, you are a long way to understanding their decision-making.

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