Scare Tactics

At least once in your life, someone has scared you into doing something. Parents might do this to young children: tell them ghost stories or fables to ensure they follow the rules. Surprisingly, these scare tactics continue to work on people much older than children. Although they have no logical basis, scare tactics create an aura of fear that is hard to ignore. Here is how scare tactics work, how they are fallacies, and how you can identify and avoid them.

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Table of contents

    Scare Tactics Meaning

    Scare tactics are simple, yet unfortunately effective on those who aren't well-versed on a particular topic.

    Scare tactics use fear without evidence to influence someone’s conclusion.

    Scare tactics are a logical fallacy. A fallacy is an error of some kind.

    A logical fallacy is used like a logical reason, but it is actually flawed and illogical.

    The scare tactics fallacy is specifically an informal logical fallacy, which means that its fallacy lies not in the structure of the logic (which would be a formal logical fallacy), but rather in something else about the argument.

    Effectiveness of Scare Tactics

    Scare tactics are an appeal to fear, and fear is a powerful emotion. Take this use of scare tactics, for example.

    If you don’t buy this product, you risk injury and death.

    The possibility that you risk injury and death by not undertaking some action is a persuasive reason to undertake said action. However, this is persuasive because you fear that the possibility of injury is true, not because the possibility of injury is true based on evidence.

    Scare tactics, Risk example, Warning Sign, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Scare tactics assert risk without basis.

    Scare Tactics as a Logical Fallacy

    Evidence-based logic can make you afraid. For instance, a lot of evidence suggests that global warming is reaching (or has reached) crisis levels. However, it is the logic of this argument that creates fear. The evidence scares you.

    Scare tactics do not provide evidence. Ignoring evidence, a scare tactician dares you not to believe their conclusion. It's like saying, "evidence or no evidence, can you afford the risk?"

    Scare tactics rarely present you with a wide selection of alternatives. They tend to push a particular action while ignoring other choices.

    Scare tactics put you in a difficult situation. Still, you should always seek evidence and never buy into a scare tactic. The reason is simple. Suppose someone cannot provide you with evidence, and you cannot find any evidence for a claim. In that case, there is (literally) no reason to believe that their dire conclusions will occur.

    Take again the example; "If you don’t buy this product, you risk injury and death." There is no evidence in this claim that you risk death. There is only a threat.

    Not all evidence is equal. Someone who uses scare tactics might provide you with some form of evidence to support their conclusion if asked. Sometimes, this evidence is sound, and you have cause to fear something. Sometimes, this evidence is not sound, and you have no reason to fear it. When seeking evidence, you want multiple pieces of evidence from varying sources. There should be no bias, and it should include sound research. Seek research conducted by peer-reviewed institutions and universities. You are not getting accurate evidence if you get most of your talking points from one channel, side, or person.

    The Purpose of Scare Tactics

    So, why would someone use scare tactics instead of using the required evidence to prove a point? There could be many reasons, of course, but here are some common reasons someone might use scare tactics:

    • Their claim is not true. They might not even realize it because they’ve bought into the fear themselves. However, if a claim is untrue, it cannot be validated logically. Only logical fallacies will suffice in supporting it.

    • Scare tactics are quick. Proving an argument takes a lot of effort. Using scare tactics is a shortcut because the evidence section of an argument is weak or cut out altogether.

    • Fear is powerful. Fear is especially powerful for people who have little experience with or little understanding of a topic. It’s also powerful against those who don’t have enough confidence in their own convictions. However, it is possible to manipulate almost anyone’s fears and make them believe what you want.

    Fear stands no chance against reason.

    Scare Tactics Example

    Here is how a scare tactic might appear in an essay. This is a fictional example.

    Proposition 200 adds additional zoning to Klay County, preventing cheap and tawdry establishments from invading your family’s personal space. The alternative is total anarchy; it is violence in the streets. Do you want to fear for your child's safety every time they go to the school bus? Businesses are zeroing in on this county and plan to bring dangers to your doorstep. A vote for proposition 200 is a vote for safety and against the destruction of everything you hold dear.

    For all the dangers that Proposition 200 supposedly prevents, there is a startling lack of evidence to support that conclusion.

    Look at the kind of language this essay uses. Tawdry establishments, invading, total anarchy, violence, fear for the safety of your child, zeroing in, dangers to your doorstep, destruction of everything you hold dear. These are grim predictions about what will happen if Proposition 200 isn't passed, but where's the evidence?

    With scare tactics, a threat is a substitute for evidence. Instead of proving that something scary will happen, someone using the scare tactics fallacy assumes the dangers of something without verifying it. Scare tactics skip the crucial step of validation.

    Scare tactics, Borders example, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Don't let scare tactics create borders in your mind.

    How to Avoid Scare Tactics

    When writing your essay, here are some steps you can take to avoid using scare tactics.

    • Don’t make it about “us vs. them.” You shouldn’t try to vilify your enemy and make it sound like all their ideas will implode the world. The more open-minded and objective you are, the stronger your argument will be.

    • Focus on your argument. You shouldn’t need to resort to scare tactics to prove your point. Instead of focusing on how scary something else is, prove what makes your idea a good course of action. You want to create a forum for debate, not a cesspool for misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric.

    • Consider alternate solutions to a problem. Just because you haven’t considered a given solution to an issue does not mean it is bad or scary. The world is constantly evolving. Explore all sides of a topic, and don’t get set in your ways.

    Scare Tactic Synonyms

    The scare tactics fallacy is also called the appeal to fear, or argument from adverse consequences. Broadly, scare tactics appeal to emotions, although these terms are not synonymous. There are many types of emotional appeals, such as the appeal to pity.

    In Latin, the appeal to fear goes by two terms: argumentum ad metum and argumentum in terrorem.

    There are also several ideas related to scare tactics, including arm-twisting, bullying, and intimidation.

    Arm-twisting is leveraging an advantage to persuade someone.

    This is like a mafia's protection racket, where gangsters would force establishments to pay them for "protection" with the implication that, if they didn't, they would cause the establishment problems.

    Bullying is a combination of scare tactics and ad hominem attacks intended to bring someone down.

    Bullying can also be used to persuade someone to do something they don't otherwise want to do.

    Intimidation is using an appearance of power to persuade someone.

    The government has the ability to intimidate due to its size, as do large corporations.

    Each of these can work hand in hand with scare tactics to manipulate people or an argument.

    Scare Tactics - Key Takeaways

    • Scare tactics use fear without evidence to influence someone's conclusion.
    • An example of scare tactics is, "If you don’t buy this product, you risk injury and death."
    • Scare tactics do not provide evidence. Ignoring evidence, a scare tactician dares you not to believe their conclusion.
    • Someone might use scare tactics because its claims are untrue, quick, and powerful.
    • To avoid scare tactics, don't make it about "us vs. them," focus on your argument, and consider alternative solutions to a problem.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Scare Tactics

    What are scare tactics?

    Scare tactics use fear without evidence to influence someone's conclusion.

    What is the purpose of scare tactics?

    People may use scare tactics for a variety of reasons: because their claim is not true, because scare tactics are quick, or because fear is powerful.

    Are scare tactics a logical fallacy?

    Yes. Instead of appealing to evidence, scare tactics appeal illogically to fear.

    What is an example of scare tactics?

    An example of a scare tactic is: If you don’t buy this product, you risk injury and death.

    Are scare tactics effective?

    Scare tactics are not effective in logical argumentation. However, they can be influential to those who aren't well-versed on a topic.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of fallacy is the scare tactics fallacy?

    Scare tactics use fear without _____ to influence someone’s conclusion.

    Instead of proving that something scary will happen, someone using the scare tactics fallacy _____ the dangers of something without verifying it.


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