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What are Scare Tactics?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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When it comes to motivating the masses to take action, sometimes straight facts aren't enough. People who hear a frightening statistic or an alarming fact often take that information at face value and act out of fear. This is the purpose of using "scare tactics," manipulative words or actions that create a sense of fear or shock in the recipients. These fears, rational or irrational as they may be, are often enough to force people into making uninformed decisions or taking rash actions. Pointing out the worst case scenario or associating an issue with a much greater threat are tactics commonly used by leaders to gain popular support for military actions or other controversial decisions.

Scare tactics do not have to reach the level of verbal terrorism in order to be effective, however. Sometimes, the mere mention of a disastrous alternative may be enough to manipulate others into a certain way of thinking. Successful tactics must instill a true sense of fear or else they may be seen as weak attempts to sway public opinion. This is why many verbal statements are often backed up by more tangible evidence, such as grisly photographs, personal testimonies and displays of force. Hanging a noose over a voting booth, for example, would be an extreme example designed to discourage free elections.

In world politics, scare tactics are quite common since it is generally difficult for one dictator to keep dissidents under control without the threat of violence, real or perceived. As long as the population believes that tactics such as secret police squads, shutdowns of free presses, political arrests and summary executions are real, organized rebellions become a rarity. The key word in the term is "scare" — it doesn't matter if most of the stories of political reprisals are apocryphal or mere rumors, as long as they instill a real sense of fear in the populace.

Most scare tactics are not meant to cause widespread harm or damage, but to play on the recipient's innate sense of security. Many professional athletes use them to keep their opponents off-balance, such as a pitcher intentionally throwing a ball close to the batter or a race car driver tapping another car for intimidation purposes. These tactics often keep an opponent from becoming too comfortable or too confident. While the use of most is seen as unfair or unethical, the advantage they can provide can be significant. Many scare tactics are designed to stay within the bounds of the law, but still inflict maximum psychological pressure on the intended audience.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By Nickwill — On Dec 13, 2018

No two human beings think alike, so utilizing scare tactics in an effort to control any situation without absolute knowledge of its outcome is terrorism at its finest. People's mentalities are totally different, and every person or person's mind may not have the mental capacity to endure the pressures of certain situations without permanent damage in some form.

A mere science experiment with a typical hypothesis in every case being that every case is different. Something bad could turn a person either into the next president or the next Saddam Hussein, or possibly leave them brain dead, hypothetically speaking.

By anon333229 — On May 03, 2013

Scare tactics are wrong. People who use scare tactics are the weak members of society. They become terrorists suspects. People who use scare tactics put their children at risk for violence.

By serenityy — On Aug 08, 2012

Scare tactics are a great way to help someone, too. For instance, for someone who is in a drug intervention, people use scare tactics in order to change the way the person thinks. If you send the person to a crack house, this can really give some insight into what their life may turn out to be if they continue this drug lifestyle. Some sort of a scare tactic is what they really need to get the help they need!

By kentuckycat — On May 25, 2012

@Emilski - Oh no, there are scare tactics that are definitely illegal that people get away with.

One scare tactic that has occurred several times in the last few years is the mutilation of bodies by drug lords in Mexico, which are left on the highways as warnings.

These themselves are considered scare tactics against those trying to stop them and in order to create this particular scare tactic they had to murder people.

Same can be said overseas whenever a dictator orders people to be publicly executed for petty crimes. This is a scare tactic in itself because it is warning people of what can happen to them and also exhibiting the government's power.

Scare tactics like these are very rare and most are legal or semi legal as I like to call them, but there are extreme instances out there that do occur and I am sure there are plenty of other examples people can provide.

By Emilski — On May 24, 2012

@stl156 - I can see where the law can intervene, but it only seems like this can occur in only rare circumstances in which it encompasses something that is illegal.

One example that I can think of happened in my town and that involved the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on the front lawn of a black family that just moved into town.

Although the people who did it, who were from a town 30 miles away, claimed they meant no harm and that it was merely a demonstration, the police arrested them on charges such as trespassing.

However, the only reason the police were able to get away with this was because the people that burned the cross came onto their property and the fire from the cross also burned their grass, so that made it something they could be arrested for.

Say they had done it across the street in a neighbors yard that let them do it, I do not know if they could be arrested for doing that, which makes me think that nearly any and all scare tactics can be legal.

By stl156 — On May 23, 2012

@jmc88 - I would say that depends exactly on what the person is trying to accomplish.

Sometimes scare tactics can be used as more in the form of a practical joke in order to get back at somebody for something they did in the past. In this case it is more fun and not necessarily a form of bullying.

As far as someone using scare tactics in a not so nice manner I would have to say that they could be considered some form of bullying in the psychological realm.

That being said there are some institutions that are starting to take control of scare tactics, such as in schools and preventing these types of bullying from happening.

Now most of the time scare tactics would not involve hazing or bullying for this to happen, but it can happen and there are instances in which the law and courts have had to intervene in certain settings.

By jmc88 — On May 22, 2012

It seems to me that the phrase "scare tactics can encompass many different types of things that can be used basically as a form of intimidation.

I am guessing that since this is the case could it be said that scare tactics are simply a form of bullying from the basic sense?

I am only asking because it seems like all the examples listed, which include a wide range of examples such as sports and social issues, seem to all have one aspect in common, and that is that the premise of bullying exists in someone performing scare tactics on another individual in some way.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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