"Caveman" by Bryce Bradford

The Fear Factor: How Modern Media Capitalize on Our Primal Instinct

19 minutes to read
Marijn van Engelen

Walking around the city may not seem like a cognitive task, but our brains are constantly at work to process stimuli everywhere around us. We see a street performer singing a catchy song, shops promoting their “SALE! 50% OFF”, and volunteers asking for a small contribution to their charity — all while we must be careful of passing cyclists and buses. Even when we are at home scrolling through social media, it is no different: a video of someone covering a famous song is followed by an advertisement, after which we see a post about a charity. In modern society, our attention is demanded everywhere, always.

Today's Constant Fight for Attention

Especially since the start of the digital age, we are increasingly exposed to media and technologies that constantly compete for our attention, such as website ads and phone notifications. This never-ending switching of focus has had its due effects on our cognitive capacity: our attention span seems to suffer from our increasing preference for higher levels of stimulation (Hayles, 2007). As a result, attention has come to be seen as a scarce, yet valuable and highly demanded resource. Moreover, new media measures our attention in views, likes, or shares from which they can profit. Attention has been opened up for monetization. In that respect, attention is not merely a cognitive concept anymore; it has also become an economic one. This approach, which treats attention as a type of currency, is termed the 'attention economy' (Terranova, 2012). For organizations to profit in this economy, they must engage their audience in their product — in other words, they must find ways to successfully capture and hold their audience's focus.

Attention is not merely a cognitive concept anymore; it has also become an economic one.

One of these ways is to manipulate attention, for example by inducing emotional responses such as sadness, joy, or fear. The latter, in particular, poses an interesting case, on which I will focus in this paper. Deeply rooted in human nature, our fear response is part of our primal instinct to survive. It is regulated by the parts of our brain that have survived evolution. It can thus still be activated today, evoking the same fear reflex as it did twelve millennia ago. And this activation is exactly what media outlets are aiming for: they strategically cater to our natural fears to grab our attention and thereby profit. But how does this work? What processes are at play?

In this paper, I will investigate how media can distract our attention to engage us in their content, and why they aim to do so. I will therefore consider the following research question: How and why do modern media cater to fear, as part of our primal survival instinct, to capture our attention?. To answer this question, I will first provide some theoretical background regarding our primal survival instinct and fear response, after which I will elaborate on the concept of attention and the attention economy. Then, I will discuss two case studies: (1) a headline of an online news video, and (2) a clothing advertisement. Through textual and visual analysis, I aim to illustrate how our primitive fear reflex is still recognizable today and used by companies to their advantage. The goal of this paper is to emphasize the inextricable link between fear and attention, thereby arguing for the significant role that fear plays in the attention economy.

Fear and the Primal Brain

Let us start by travelling back in time, to the era of hunter-gatherers about 12,000 years ago. Our ancestors lived in a natural environment where their daily activities consisted of — as their name suggests — hunting and gathering, as well as building shelters and tools, and traveling from one place to another (Harari, 2015). Their goal was to sustain their species: to cooperate with the group, create protection, and most importantly, stay alive and healthy. Going back to the 21st century, this primitive survival instinct is still innate to humans. Even though our environment has changed drastically during these millennia, our bodies and brains have stayed the same (MinnaLearn, n.d.).

To better understand what our brains look like from an evolutionary perspective, let us consider the triune brain theory by neuroscientist Paul MacLean. He suggested that the brain can be divided into three parts: the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex. First, as the oldest part of the brain, the reptilian brain regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, body temperature and breathing. Second, the limbic brain — also a very old part — deals with emotions. Finally, the neocortex, as the latest part to evolve, is involved in higher-order brain functions. It is divided into areas that each control a specific function, such as sensory perception, reasoning, language, problem-solving, and decision-making (Reward Foundation, n.d.). Together, the two oldest parts — the reptilian and limbic brain — are called our primal brain (Mudder, 2022).

The primal brain has one clear goal: to survive. It constantly scans our environment for possible danger, as some dangers may threaten our lives. As arguably the strongest of survival instincts and one of our core affects, fear plays a significant role in this process (Ressler, 2017; Wortmann, 2019). It is a functional emotion, Öhman (2000) writes. It directs our attention towards potential threats so that we can take action to protect ourselves. One brain area that is highly relevant to this process is the amygdala, which is located in the limbic brain. It is involved in the processing of emotions, particularly recognizing and responding to stimuli that induce fear (LeDoux, 2007).

The primal brain has one clear goal: to survive. It constantly scans our environment for possible dangers, as these may threaten our lives

The Evolutionary Function of Fear

As described by Albrecht (2012), all humans share five basic, or primal, fears: extinction, separation, mutilation, loss of autonomy, and ego-death. In this paper, I want to focus on the first two. First, the fear of extinction, or death, expresses itself in fearing whatever directly threatens our existence. For our ancestors, such threats included of saber-toothed tigers. Coming across such a dangerous animal evokes a fear response. During this response, as Comer et al. (2017) explain, the amygdala sends signals to the body that result in physiological changes, such as an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and the stress hormone cortisol. This reflex is also called the fight-or-flight system: whenever we are confronted with (potential) danger, fear triggers our natural response to either attack or flee to safety (Comer et al., 2017).

The second fear I want to elaborate on is the fear of separation, or social rejection. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are a social species. In fact, showing pro-social behavior has been critical to our survival throughout history (Knight, 2022). As described by Leary (2015), our ancestors’ lives depended heavily on their belonging to a group, as the group's collectivity provided resources and protection against predators. Losing the group meant losing food and safety, and thus risking chances to survive. As a result, our brains have become so concerned with being accepted and belonging that we want to avoid being alone at all costs. So, besides encountering direct danger, our survival instinct — that is, our fear reflex — also responds whenever we risk being rejected.

Our Old Brains in Modern Times

Considering what I just described, fear clearly came in handy for our ancestors. Ever since the development of the primal brain, humans have been conditioned to survive, and fear helps them to do so. Fear of a direct threat helped them deal with life-or-death situations, whereas fear of rejection helped them to stay part of the group. However, as mentioned before, our modern world is completely different from the reality of the hunter-gatherers. Direct threats have mostly disappeared from our immediate environments, and our survival does not solely depend on the group anymore. Our brains, however, have remained the exact same. Theoretically speaking, the neocortex could reason that these two primal fears are no longer relevant today, but it is the old primal brain that drives our survival instinct and cannot be argued with. It is more powerful and operates faster than our rational thinking (Mudder, 2022). All in all, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari (2015), we are still unconsciously living in the world of hunter-gatherers; our habits are shaped by how our ancestral brains deal with modern stimuli. But how can we understand these modern stimuli? To answer this question, we should turn to the concept of the attention economy.

Our modern world is completely different from that of the hunter-gatherers. Our brains, on the other hand, have remained the same.

Fear and the Attention Economy

Before describing the economic value of attention, it is useful to first define the term, and place it in the context of the digital age. Attention can be defined as a direction of focus. Whenever we pay attention, our cognitive resources are focused on certain environmental stimuli (excluding others), to which the nervous system is ready to respond (APA, 2018). According to Hayles (2007), we can distinguish between deep and hyper attention. We engage in deep attention when we concentrate on a single object for a prolonged period while ignoring other stimuli. In contrast, hyper attention is characterized by seeking a higher level of stimulation, leading us to switch focus rapidly among tasks. So, during deep attention, our focus lies on a single information stream, while during hyper attention, our attention is divided.

Each cognitive mode has its advantages and limitations, depending on the task at hand. Yet looking at these modes from an evolutionary perspective, Hayles (2007) continues, hyper attention undoubtedly developed first, as humans needed it to survive in an environment which required constant alertness to danger. Deep attention is thus a luxury resulting from the secure environments of developed societies. For instance, think of how the educational system depends on long periods of deep focus — so much that it has become the norm; hyper attention is seen as defective behavior (Hayles, 2007). In our current digital age, however, a cognitive shift from deep to hyper attention is in progress: a rapidly developing mediascape is transforming how we think (Hayles, 2007). According to Terranova (2012), new media rewires our attention, creating a shift from focused reasoning and long-term memory towards rote tasks and short-term memory. As a result, we now are faster at performing routine tasks, but less efficient at doing so. Our attention has thus become less focused, more restless, and thereby easier to distract.

The Rise of the Attention Economy

This shift in modern culture has brought with it a crisis of attentiveness, as argued by Terranova (2012). She describes how modern media produce too much information for people to consume due to their limited time and — more importantly — their limited attention. Among the abundance of information, we can only pay attention to a selection. Consequently, attention has become a scarce yet valuable resource that is fought over by all kinds of media. And once attention is captured, it is measurable through the digital interactions and data that serve as its proxies, such as clicks, likes, or shares, opening it up to financialization. In that sense, Terranova (2012) argues, attention has become a new kind of capital, giving rise to a proper economy: the attention economy.

When scrolling on social media, we look for some kind of thrill; for a moment of high emotion that grabs our attention.

So, in this new economic system, the capturing of attention has always been the key goal. Therefore, the attention economy is equally a distraction economy (Paasonen, 2021). And “the art of distraction”, Paasonen writes, “comes tied in with the production and potential manipulation of affect.” She explains that there is an emotional aspect to distraction, a so-called affective intensity. That is, when scrolling on social media, for example, we look for some kind of thrill; for a moment of high emotion — be it anger, joy, or fear — that grabs our attention. Such content is described as ‘sticky’, Paasonen (2021) continues, in the sense that it makes us pay attention and engage — it is content that does not simply slide by but evokes an emotional, or affective, response. In other words, by making content sticky, media can utilize affect to grab our attention.

The Power of Negative Affect

The notion of affective intensity leads me to what psychologists call the negativity bias. This cognitive bias is our tendency to register and process negative stimuli noticeably faster than positive ones (Yoshida et al., 2021). It is the reason why we react more strongly to negative events, why we dwell on these, and why negative emotional memories are easier to recall (Cherry, 2023). Also, the negativity bias causes us to interpret ambiguous stimuli or events as negative (Ito et al., 2017). In other words, we have a deeply rooted tendency to focus on the negative. And there is a clear evolutionary reason for this: for our ancestors, scanning our environment for threats was crucial to survive. Put simply, we humans focus on the negative because that is where potential danger is. Even today, focusing on the negative is not pessimism per se, but our primal instinct in action.

Focusing on the negative is not pessimism per se, but our primal instinct in action.

There is a clear link between the negativity bias and the attention economy, namely that negativity attracts attention, which is in high demand today. To further elaborate, modern media aim to capture our attention and to do so, they will create sticky content that distracts us and engages us in their post or product. We have already discussed that we are conditioned to focus more readily on the negative, as it activates our primal instinct. So, by focusing on the potential for a strong affective response, negatively framed content grabs our attention by triggering our natural reflex: we (think we) recognize potential danger, which evokes a fear response. To illustrate this, I will discuss a case study in the next section. Thereafter, a second case study will show how, even though content may not be negatively framed, it can still cater to this primal reaction.

Case Studies

By analyzing the following cases, I aim to illustrate how modern media use fear to capture our attention. First, I will use multimodal analysis as an approach — employing techniques of textual analysis and visual rhetoric — to analyze a news publication and link it to the primal fear of a direct threat. Second, I will discuss a clothing advertisement to show how companies cater to the fear of rejection. By analyzing these two case studies, I will demonstrate how the audience is persuaded to engage with the content or product.

Case: Fear of a Direct Threat

To show how the primal fear of a direct threat can be considered in the context of the attention economy, let us consider a publication by Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf (see figure 1). This publication was selected because it serves as a good example when arguing for the power of images and language to evoke fear. The combination of both modalities leads to a negatively framed piece of content, of which I will describe the effects later. Posted on their YouTube channel on February 27, 2024, the video’s title reads: “Farmers fearful of virus rise: ‘Horrifying, a tragedy’”. The clip is about farmers who have lost hundreds of sheep due to a newly detected virus, desperately hoping for a vaccine to become available soon. However, instead of discussing the content of the clip more extensively, for the purpose of my analysis, it is more interesting to analyze how its thumbnail and title might encourage people to engage with it, as these are the elements that YouTube users see when scrolling on the platform.

Figure 1. Thumbnail and title of De Telegraaf’s news video on YouTube, translated as “Farmers fearful of virus rise: ‘Horrifying, a tragedy’”.

When coming across the thumbnail of this video, we see a farmer who seems to be crying, combined with the quote “Emotionally it is awful”. Additionally, we see a picture of a symptom of the virus — an unpleasant sight. Combined with the shock-inducing language in the title, which contains words like ‘virus rise’ and ‘tragedy’, this post can be classified as clickbait: it is a sensationalized headline that is designed to attract attention and encourage interaction (Salsi, 2023). Thus, considering the emotional intensity of thuis post, it can be seen as sticky in the sense that it ‘tickles’ us by evoking an affective response (Paasonen, 2021). This affect is highly negative due to the choice of language and images. And evolutionary speaking, it is such negativity that we are conditioned to focus on.

Though there are no tigers anymore that may attack us, our brains are still alerted to danger in our environment. In the case of the De Telegraaf headline, the threat is a deadly virus that appears to be on the rise. We naturally fear this virus — a feeling that is perhaps enhanced by our emotional memories of the COVID-19 pandemic —, as we fear any horrifying situation or tragedy because, to our survival-programmed brains, these might threaten our lives. Hence, by activating our primal fear response, De Telegraaf has successfully captured our attention. Similarly, we have become curious about the content: we want to know more about this threat so that we can protect ourselves from it. As a result, we press play on the video and watch it. Consequently, by giving it our attention, De Telegraaf gains a click, a view, and perhaps even a like or share, which holds economic value for the newspaper. So, if (news) organizations distract enough people to engage with their content this way, they can profit from our restless attention.

Case: Fear of Rejection

As described earlier, humans not only naturally fear what directly threatens them. Our ancestors also feared social rejection because losing the group meant a significant decrease in their chances of survival. The subsequent need to belong is also still present today, and similarly exploited for profit. Consider, for example, the American Eagle Outfitters advertisement depicted in figure 2. The ad shows an image of a group of young people having fun together, combined with the text “We the people / Live in AE jeans”. As opposed to the news publication described earlier, this advertisement is not framed negatively — rather, the spontaneity and smiles portray joy. However, even in this instance, the company that is behind it has found a way to speak to our primal instinct, this time by focusing on our fear of rejection.

Figure 2. Advertisement by clothing brand American Eagle Outfitters.

As explained by Paasonen (2021), everything we see and read generates activity in our brains. Our amygdala — the brain part that is involved in fear responses — constantly scans the environment for threats to our survival. Earlier in this paper, I mentioned that our survival does not depend on being included in a group anymore, but that we are still inherently social. That is, acceptance and belonging are still essential elements of human nature. As such, even though rejection is not result in a life-threatening situation anymore, our primal brains still see it as such (Mudder, 2022). What happens when we see this ad, then, is that we (unconsciously) think that if we do not buy these jeans, we will not be included in this happy and healthy-looking group. American Eagle Outfitters thus gives us a sense of being socially accepted if we dress in their clothes, a method called the ‘social appeal strategy’ in marketing (Newbold, 2017).

This wish to belong is further enhanced by the text in the ad: “We the people / Live in AE jeans”. These phrases promote a strong connection between wearing American Eagle jeans and being part of that desired group — the “we” depicted in the ad. In other words, if we want to belong to this group, we should buy the brand’s products – if we do not, we risk being rejected. In that respect, this advertisement is also sticky content: our primal brain — focused on survival and thus on the negative — recognizes the risk of being rejected and induces an affective response, triggering our fear reflex. Consequently, to cope with this apparent threat and prevent social rejection, we buy the jeans. In that respect, companies can use our primal fear of rejection to sell their products — and thus, as also became clear in the first case study, they can use our attention to their advantage.


In short, this paper explored how various media can capture our attention and consequently profit. Adopting an evolutionary perspective, my goal was to emphasize the inextricable link between attention and fear, thereby arguing for the significant role that fear plays in the attention economy. The research question I aimed to answer was: How and why do modern media cater to fear, as part of our primal survival instinct, to capture our attention?.

To answer this question and place it in the relevant context, I considered the concept of the attention economy. Based on work by Hayles (2007), Terranova (2012), and Paasonen (2021), I have described this economy as one that treats attention as a type of currency. That is, the digital age has brought with it an abundance of information, resulting in our attention becoming a limited yet highly demanded resource open for monetization. Moreover, digital technologies have led to a cognitive shift from deep attention to hyper attention, decreasing our ability to focus on a single stream of information for a longer period. This makes our attention more restless. The goal of new media has thus increasingly become to distract and capture our scarce attention in order to profit from the clicks, likes, and shares that our attention can generate. In other words, in the attention economy, our focus is competed for, manipulated, and monetized.

It is in the attention economy that we meet our ancestors.

Essentially, the two case studies provided examples of how our attention can be captured when modern media trigger our primal instinct. In that sense, it is in the attention economy that we meet our ancestors. Using various strategies, media cater to our innate fear of direct threats and social rejection, which both risked our ancestors' survival in the era of the hunter-gatherers. The goal of this fear reflex is to protect us and keep us alive. Therefore, it is much faster than rational thinking. However, even though society has transformed over the last 12,000 years, our brains have not. Stuck at the stage where immediate detection of danger is of vital importance, we are still constantly focused on the negative. Media are aware of this negativity bias and use it to their advantage. They profit from what is deeply rooted within us and create sticky content that evokes an affective response, and thus naturally attracts us. 

we might not be able to control our fast, innate responses, but we might be able to control how we let these responses affect us.

Our primitive brain parts have acted the same for millennia, and will probably continue to do so. After describing how companies can use this to their advantage, it may seem like we are at the mercy of our natural instinct. Are we truly a ‘victim’ of our primal brains, and consequently of the attention economy? To end on a more positive note, I do not think that we are. Yes, we might not be able to control our fast, innate responses, but we might be able to control how we let these responses affect us. Knowing the processes that are at play, we can look around more critically, and recognize how content is framed, and how these frames might affect us. Only in this way, we can we become more aware of the fear factor in modern media.


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