The Amygdala and Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt in Copywriting

Fear, uncertainty and doubt, or FUD, is a term introduced to me by Dane Goodfellow, the President of Digital Learning Alliance. FUD and the amygdala go hand-in-hand (more about that in a moment).

In his long sales career at IBM, Dane was one of the superstars. You can read about Dane's latest venture with Digital Learning Alliance here, of which my colleague, Perry Alexander and I play a role in the marketing of this upstart non-profit.

But I’ll always remember him during one of our first conference calls talking about “FUD.” I had no clue what he was talking about. But once he spelled it out, it was an “a ha!” moment. 

As a marketer and copywriter, I’ve always known fear to be a strong motivator. A recent event while I vacation, that appears in my column at Target Marketing magazine, illustrates the point. 

Earlier this month, my wife and I traveled to Barcelona, Spain, where our daughter was just wrapping up a study abroad semester. We had rented a car for a drive to Andorra and Southern France and while returning the car to the Barcelona’s city center, we got lost. The GPS navigation wasn’t helpful. The streets were crowded. Then a tap on the window by a motorcyclist next to our car, and pedestrians pointing to the passenger rear tire sent me over the edge: the tire was nearly flat.

Going into the trip, I anticipated that renting a car and driving would generate some anxiety. It began with the fact that the car came with a manual transmission. The last time that I had driven a vehicle with a manual transmission was on the family farm in the 1970s. I thought driving with a manual transmission after all those years would be like never forgetting how to ride a bike. Apparently not. After dozens of times stalling the engine in intersections and at toll booths due to the learning curve of syncing acceleration and releasing the clutch, I felt fear.  After three days of driving, I finally got past the learning curve of using a manual transmission. 

But it was in the moments returning the car with a nearly flat tire that was my worst fear of all. There was no place to pull over on the crowded streets of Barcelona. Traffic was heavy. Motorcycles buzzed around us. Yet we were only blocks from the car rental facility. We couldn’t get there from where we were.

Fear consumed me. It’s an instinctive response. And there is science that helps to explain why fear is all-consuming.

The amygdala, or lizard brain, has an evolutionary purpose for humans to survive. The amygdala reacts in a “fight” or “flight” mode. It is alert to basic needs: anger, fear, and reproduction with memory formulated over a lifetime as it assesses how to respond to survive and reproduce. 

The right amygdala retains negative emotions, especially fear and sadness. The left amygdala retains both pleasant and unpleasant emotions.

Because we’re wired for fear and negative emotion more dominantly than for positive emotions, fear, uncertainty, and doubt take over.

And these emotions are the most powerful human emotions that marketers can leverage.

For fear to work, and for you to be credible in your copy, consider these three pathways:

  1. Begin by stimulating your prospect’s emotion with how you relate to their fear, uncertainty, and doubt (“FUD”). 
  2. Once you have acknowledged and reminded them of their FUD, you’re poised to take the next step of earning trust.
  3. Quickly calm their mind by offering your solution and clearing away the FUD.

When your mind is in constant fear, it’s difficult to think. You’re stuck. You’re frozen. You can’t make up your mind. Your decision-making power is blocked. 

Marketers can leverage the power of fear to stimulate emotion, but to be effective, you must quickly calm the mind so that decision making is unblocked and you can move your customer to the thinking part of their brain where they can make decisions. 

As for the rest of the Barcelona driving story, thankfully, after several minutes of fear and panic, we ditched using the navigation. Our daughter had an internship while there and the office was in the general neighborhood of where we needed to return the car. She had never driven in the city, but was familiar with the streets.

She calmly gave me the turn-by-turn directions to the car rental return facility. When I finally recognized a landmark only a block away, my fear vanished and a calm enveloped me. We arrived before the tire had gone completely flat. And now I could think clearly once again and return to enjoying our vacation.



Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.