Pain, Fear, and Vicarious Learning


Why do people react with fear when they see a snake, even though they have never been bitten by a snake or even had much contact with the reptiles? New research shows that the same areas of the brain that react to a personal experience involving pain or fear also react to watching someone else exhibit fear in response to the stimulus.

Study participants watched a short video of a person conditioned to fear a so-called neutral stimulus – something people normally wouldn’t fear – paired with something they find naturally aversive, in this case an electrical shock. The person in the video watched colored squares on a computer screen: When a blue square appeared, the person received a mild shock; when a yellow square appeared, there was no shock. The participant in the video responded with distress when the blue square appeared – he would blink hard, tense his cheek muscles and move his hand…

Participants were told they would take part in a similar experiment, and when presented with the blue square, they responded with fear, anticipating a shock, though they were never actually shocked. [From Fear can be learned through others’ experiences]

The study was done by Andreas Olsson and others at Columbia University, and published in the March issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. We’ve posted about related observations in the past, in particular The Dread Zone: Anticipating Pain and various posts about mirror neurons. In each case, researchers show that subjects experience a brain reaction similar to a real experience when they watch someone else have that experience.

Looked at as a whole, this body of work suggests that advertisers have a powerful tool: showing real people undergoing an experience of some kind may affect viewers as if they were having the experience themselves. Fear and pain seem to be particularly potent, although that may be simply because those topics have been studied more; I wouldn’t want to see an avalanche of ads featuring fearful, suffering people.

One has to assume that viewers, consciously or unconsciously, assign a credibility factor to what they are viewing. In a research lab, viewing a similar subject get shocked when shown a blue square and being told one will participate in the same experiment would no doubt have very high credibility. Conversely, watching a horror movie where household cats become deadly killers may make us cringe when we see a child playing with a cat in the movie, but is unlikely to make us fear cats once we leave the theater. Commercials probably fall in some middle area of credibility – more believable than an obviously fictional horror movie, but less credible than, say, a non-commercial documentary or an in-person experience.

What’s the neuromarketing lesson here? It’s a bit of a stretch to go from fear research to making more effective ads, but I think there are several key strategies one can extrapolate:

1) Keep it real: Use real people, in real situations, with realistic reactions, to produce a stronger learning response than patently false situations, cartoon characters, etc.

2) Maximize credibility: This isn’t demonstrated by the research, but I think it’s clear that viewers discriminate between believable sources (e.g., the Columbia experiment videos) and less believable ones (e.g., horror movies). Hence, the learning response is likely to be enhanced if the advertiser can prepare the viewer with credibility enhancers like study results, a credible endorser or spokesperson, etc.

lamisil creature3) Be careful with fear and pain. Just because you can make viewers vicariously experience pain or fear doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. As I noted in the earlier Dread Zone post, the Lamisil toenail-lifting gremlin definitely makes me cringe, but does that build a good brand association or increase the likelihood of purchasing the product? Perhaps a convincing scenario with a real person showing clear relief after using the product might produce a more effective and profitable learning response.

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