Fear Factor

I remember learning about classic persuasive techniques: ethos, pathos, and logos. These modes of persuasion are useful rhetoric devices to appeal to the audience. In this post, let me focus on pathos.

Pathos is a classic persuasive technique, which appeals to someone’s emotions. When used properly, especially in the design of an e-commerce site, it is a very powerful tool to persuade users to make a decision in favor of the business.

Here is one example. On Travelocity, a popular leisure travel web site, if you rent a car, you will be offered collision insurance coverage close to the end of the process, as shown below.


If you select the option “Yes,” you will have a peace of mind, knowing you will be covered if you unfortunately have a collision. However, if you select “No,” you will not be covered. When you select No, you see “No, I’m willing to take the risk.” If you’re a moderate risk taker, it may not mean much to you. However, if you’re someone who is not risk tolerate, it recommends you buy the coverage. The psychological effect of “No, I’m willing to take the risk” is so much powerful than simply saying “No.”

Assume you select No. The game is not over yet. You will see the following message.


Once again, it reminds you that you have no protection.

By the time you wrap up your transaction and are ready to pay, you are reminded again (in red text) one final time that your car is not protected. And it’s not too late to add it now.


Note that once you click on “Add now”, the fee will be added automatically and the total updated accordingly.

So in rejecting the purchase, you’re “hit” three times about the risk of not having coverage.

I don’t know the percentage of people that change their mind after being “warned” with these messages. Pathos appeals to fear in order to sway people’s decision. In this example, you can see the full display of it.

Here is another example to “pressure” users to make the purchase now.


See the message “Only 3 tickets left at this price!” in red. It urges users to make the purchase now before it’s gone because the inventory is running out.

Injecting “fear” to users influences their decisions or causes them to change their decisions to our favor. However, if we can alleviate users’ fear, it may also change their actions. See the following picture:


Users may feel apprehensive giving out their email addresses. But there is a note “Don’t worry, we don’t spam” below the Email input box. This may help calm the fear of their email addresses being abused. Hopefully, they feel more comfortable providing the information. Alleviating users’ fear is another technique designers can use to change users’ behaviors.


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