Friday, February 13

Unconditioning Fear: Change The Communication

"What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" — Haw

The quote, of course, comes from New York Times business bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson. It's a good question to ask nowadays, especially with so many people settling into the notion that there is no more new cheese so we all have to protect the cheese we've got.

In fact, most people, including business managers and government officials, seem to be sitting around waiting for new cheese to magically turn up. Some people, like many economists, are saying we're going to run lower, and perhaps out, of the little cheese we have left. And President Obama seems to think that nobody has any cheese so we all better panic.

“The federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life,” he said.

"What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" — Haw

In the parable, Haw realizes that it's better to start looking for new cheese than to worry about the cheese that dwindled away. And eventually, Haw begins to slowly lose his fear as he finds little bits of cheese here and there. The more often he succeeds, the more he learns "when you move beyond your fear, you feel free," until he finds bigger and bigger supplies.

But what if Haw had a strong influencer? What if Hem, who was Haw's friend, did more than stick to his victimized mindset and stay behind? What if every time Haw tried to leave in search of new cheese, Hem shocked him with a cattle prod? ZAP!

We already know what would happen. We know that the fear of a negative reinforcement, such as an electric shock, can condition people like Haw, in order to avoid the electric shock, do whatever Hem wants. And if Hem decides he doesn't want Haw to do anything, then he could simply shock Haw frequently and unpredictably until Haw didn't move at all.

It's called learned helplessness. It comes from constant and unpredictable jolts. It comes in the form of fear communication.

"What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" — Haw

Sure, fear can be a powerful motivator in developing awareness. For example, we used the fear of losing a child to develop awareness about pool safety in 2004.

Two years ago, we reworked a billboard originally developed for the United Way of Southern Nevada as a banner for a Bloggers Unite campaign. It used the fear of child abuse to raise awareness.

However, there is a down side to developing fear-based communication. Much like a cattle prod, too much can convince the public that the problem is TOO BIG to do anything about it. When that happens to a cause, people will stop trying to help. Learned helplessness.

So in 1999, we helped the United Way of Southern Nevada change the communication. Instead of fear, we focused on hope. "Great Results Start With U. United Way." Although it was later changed to simply "Great results start with you", it became the longest running, most successful campaign theme in the history of the organization (about seven years).

It worked because we changed the communication. We presented problems, but we also presented solutions made possible by the generous donations of people who supported the campaign. When we managed the campaign, the content usually presented how many people needed a particular service and how much supporters had already contributed to meet that need. Doing so placed goals within reach, motivating people to dig a little deeper and give a little more. We found the cheese.

"What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?" — Haw

If you want real change, you need hope over helplessness. And that begins with changing the communication. Otherwise, worst-case scenarios like the one fictionalized by David Brooks with The New York Times could be proven true. And none of us wants that.

It doesn't really matter how you want to apply the message. As an individual or organization, business or industry, community or county, it all works. If you want better outcomes, change the communication. People want something to believe in, not something that reinforces this ridiculous notion that there is no more cheese.

Of course there is cheese to be found. Ignore the dudes with the cattle prods. And then move forward and find it.

Related reading:

NIH Public Access: Habituation of unconditioned fear can be attenuated by the presence of a safe stimulus

National Geographic News: Brain Region for Overcoming Fear, Anxiety Found

Breakthrough Blog: Overcoming fear in foreign policy

Utne Reader: Overcoming fear culture and fear itself


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent post and one which struck home. It was not intended for me, but I got so much out of the message. Thank you for your astuteness and delivery as you helped to reinforce that which has helped me get back on track. Your words will resonate within my mind in the days, weeks and even months ahead.

Rich on 2/13/09, 8:13 PM said...


If it helped, then it was intended for you. :)

Keep me posted on your progress.

All my best,

Anonymous said...


Tomorrow (Presidents Day), I tackle the same subject from the perspective a hope. As usual, we are on the same page. Fear temporally allows solutions to work, before they ultimately fail, because without hope, there can be no solution.

Rich on 2/15/09, 8:50 AM said...


I cannot wait to read it. Maybe if enough people ask leadership to make decisions based on reason rather than fear, we could accomplish much more.

As much as I've been wondering if fear communication is the symptom of an increasingly fragile empire, I think we owe it to ourselves as individuals to move forward with fearlessness regardless of those things which we cannot control.


Anonymous said...

It takes a situation for leadership to surface.

What is happening now is a golden opportunity for those who have the intelligence, daring, and resources to act. Economic downturns always create new market opportunities and weaken former market leaders. Even in the worst it means resources can be bought up for nothing. Russia’s capitalistic elite did just that when their country went totally broke and families had to be rationed food – some had the wisdom to realize that what was cheap then would be a fortune later. Good strategist utilize the market cycles for leverage.

Debby on 2/17/09, 11:16 AM said...

I am convinced that panic and fear are bringing more economic troubles then we actually had in the first place. It is a vicious cycle. Our leaders are looking at symptoms as if they are causes instead of trying to understand underlying causes. The use the media to market panic over symptoms so that we will feel the need to accept their solutions. I feel that we should be giving the same answer to our politicians we do to people who try to get us to buy their product immediately after they give us their sales pitch saying the offer is only good while we are at their office. If the solution works it will work after the politicians have read it and understand what they are signing. If a product is good it will be worth purchasing after I have time to think about it. This column deserves wider coverage.
Debby from SC

Rich on 2/17/09, 12:20 PM said...


My company was started during a recession. I always keep that in mind when we hit hiccups.

I am hoping more business strategists and less social engineers will step up. History tells us that these are the times when the public must be cautious in which ideas they forward along.


So good to see you again! I tend to agree with you.

Every time the public hears the leadership utter the words "it will get worse before it gets better" or "the government is the only one who you save you," it has a direct impact on the public. It inspire people to sit home and wait, and wait, and wait.

I also agree with you that the media had a hand in helping us down the wrong road. They've been claiming recession for as long as three years before it happened. Sooner or later, it was going to stick, as little bits of supporting evidence surfaced and were over reported.

That is not to say that some problems had not already been set in motion as far back as the Clinton administration. But any more, I think our focus needs to remain solution-based and without being immobilized by fear. Blame games take up too much energy.

I already know you are a smart shopper. We need to do the same with some of the ideas being floated around. Ad the old saying goes ... if the lettuce smells, don't buy it.

All my best,


Blog Archive

by Richard R Becker Copyright and Trademark, Copywrite, Ink. © 2021; Theme designed by Bie Blogger Template