By Robert Pérez

On many social issues, fear and empathy often yank against each other in an emotional tug of war in the minds of our target audiences. Fear has evolutionary advantages over empathy that makes it seem like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is pitted against Steve Urkel.

Understanding what’s going on in the brains of our target audiences – and influencing that tug of war – is key to developing successful messaging strategies on controversial social issues.

Origins of Fear and Empathy

Fear is our brain’s way of keeping us (and our species) alive. This emotion is regulated in a part of our brain called the amygdala. It is responsible for innate reactions that we have about the world around us – especially things that might harm us.

An overactive amygdala can shut down or limit access to empathy. It does this in order to respond to fear and our evolutionary focus on survival.

Empathy is the ability to understand and to imagine another person’s experience – the capacity to walk in another person’s shoes – including those who are different from us.

The good news is that according to Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution98% of humans are hardwired for empathy.

However, when the amygdala is activated, it’s very difficult for humans to empathize because of the negative emotional “noise” created by the amygdala.

Calming the Amygdala

Amygdala activation and its impact on empathy has implications for the messaging strategies we develop on controversial social issues.

Case in point: The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area and the National Employment Law Project wanted to convince employers to hire people with arrest and conviction records. They asked Wonder and our partner, MDC Consulting, for help in developing a public education campaign.

When we conducted qualitative research with employers about the idea of being open to hiring people with arrest or conviction records, we could see the emotional tug of war play out in the ways they talked about the issue.

On the one hand, they believed in giving folks a second chance.

On the other hand, they expressed concerns about the safety of their employees and customers. Their aymgdala was helping them to imagine – even exaggerate – all the things that might go wrong by hiring a person with a record.

Our strategy to help calm the amygdala was to surround our target audience with familiarity. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says, “Familiarity calms the amygdala.” Put another way, unfamiliar ideas – like the idea of hiring someone with an arrest or conviction record – trigger an alarm in your brain. Familiarity, according to Berns, helps to quiet that alarm.

The Power of Shared Values

One source of familiarity that works well: shared values. We developed a storytelling strategy that emphasized the values that our target audiences told us they held dear including giving folks a second chance and the value of a job and hard work.

One story featured Michael Rachal, the pit master at Smoke Berkeley, a successful BBQ restaurant, and Tina Ferguson-Riffe, chef and owner of the restaurant. Before starting at Smoke Berkeley, Michael served time for a firearm conviction.

In telling their story, both Chef Tina and Michael echoed the values of hard work and second chances.

“When I hire someone, it’s looking into their eyes, trying to see who they are before I even hire them and that they want to work hard,” said Chef Tina. “We all need to work. We all need to make a living.”

Sharing what the job meant to him, Michael said, “Working here at Smoke Berkeley just turned my life around.”

The Right Messenger Maximizes the Message

Trusted messengers are another source of familiarity. It’s the reason that our videos prominently featured employers like Chef Tina as well as Mike Hannigan, co-founder and president of Give Something Back, a successful office supply company.

Based on our audience research, we understood that our target audience – employers – related more to other employers. It helped that our trusted messenger in this video was the co-founder of one of the most successful office supply companies in California. His business wasn’t harmed by hiring people with records. Instead, it was thriving.

When testing our messages and stories among our target audience, one employer had this observation about hearing from other employers who have hired people with records: “It’s like jumping off a cliff into a lake. It can be scary to be the first person to jump, but once someone goes before you – and you see them land safely, it’s not as scary to make the leap.”

This insight perfectly summarizes the emotional tug of war – as well as the ways to give empathy a fighting chance.


Image: flickr/TimmyGunz CC BY-NC-ND 2.0