Should we use fear as a primary source of motivation?

Should we use fear as a primary source of motivation?

“What’s your dream job?”

We’ve all been asked this question – especially as young children. However, when we get asked this today, as young adults, it usually catches us off guard. Often times it requires us to sit down and have a nice, long introspection of what makes us tick, what brings us joy, etc. However, today I want to tackle the opposite question.

What’s your worst nightmare?

Fast forward 40, 50, 60, 70 years. What could you have done, but didn’t? What is your biggest regret?


First of all, I strongly believe fear should NOT be our sole motivation or driving factor in the majority of the things we do. This principle is core to the central themes of positive psychology and the “disease prevention vs. health promotion” principle. Obviously, in some instances, fear is a viable source of motivation. We are actually cognitively wired to fear potentially harmful situations. These situations trigger our “fight or flight” response which is set off by our sympathetic nervous system. This is an automatic process that occurs unconsciously and allows us to avoid harm by acting quickly.

However, in regards to situations we are consciously aware of, here is an example. When waiting for the metro car to come, the fear of standing too close to the edge and falling onto the tracks is more than likely a safe way to approach the situation. In contrast, if you are an athlete fearful of screwing up in front of your coach, your brain fills with those same negative thoughts, and you are at a much greater disadvantage, ironically contributing to the likelihood of failure. Instead of acting out of fear of screwing up, the player should act out of a desire to succeed and become better at the task at hand, which will contribute to the likelihood of his or her success. Furthermore, when we are solely driven by fear, our logical reasoning is flawed and we act in ways irrational ways. Because our motivations are based solely on fear, we will do whatever it takes to avoid coming into contact with the source of our fear.

Our brain cannot process negatives


If I tell you “don’t think about your great-grandma in a bikini”, what do you do? You think about your great-grandma in a bikini, and you’re also super messed up in the head. Our brain doesn’t process the ‘not’ of the command and instead processes “think about your great-grandma in a bikini”. This subtle fact (what our brain processes, not the grandma in a bikini thing) is something that unfortunately many teachers, instructors, coaches and bosses overlook – and this leads to under-performing students, subjects, players and employees. The coach, who unhappy with his second basemen for making an error screams, “Don’t make another [expletive] error or you’re off the damn team!” causes his second basemen to fill his brain with thoughts of making an error and therefore is even more likely to do just that. The player’s mind is filled with the thought of “making an error” and his performance is impacted negatively.

However, I believe the answer to the “what is your greatest fear” question allows us to do some unconscious introspection. After answering this question and using it as a guide for our sources of purpose and motivation, we can then flip it on its head, and start doing things that will allow us to improve while also preventing us from succumbing to our fear.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say at this point in time you are fearful of failing Chemistry which will force you to have to take a summer class. This will then interfere with your summer vacation plans with your friends, who will then hate you, and so on and so forth. Based on your fear, we can then reverse the mindset using what we have just learned to the folllowing:

What can I do, starting today, that will allow me to perform well?

How can I perform well in the course so that I become more knowledgeable and intelligent in regards to Chemistry (and therefore avoid the negative consequences that I happen to fear)?

And BOOM. A whole different ballgame. We now are no longer motivated by the fear of failing, but are instead motivated by our desire to succeed which will allow us to avoid the fearful consequences. We can use this simple trick in our everyday life. By focusing on promotion, we connect our core values and with what gives meaning to our lives more often. Doing so increases the likelihood of making choices that will benefit us and be much more advantegous to us than when acting solely out of fear.

Agree? Disagree? Has fear been a good or bad motivator for you? Let me know in the comments!