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Threat and Attention


Explanations > Perception > Attention > Threat

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Describe a future in which the person experiences discomfort. This can range from showing how their current actions will not serve them well to negative methods such as blackmail and threats of physical harm.

Variables of threat include:

  • Harm: Physical, psychological or other practical damage.
  • Impact: The severity of the harm.
  • Time: When the event will take place.
  • Duration: How long the harm will be in effect (from one-off to permanent and ongoing).
  • Location: Where the harm will take place.
  • Distress: The upset that the threat causes to the person and those who they care about.

A direct, personal threat typically has the form:

  • If you do not do X then I will do Y.
  • If you do X then I will do Y.

Indirect, exposed threats may have the form:

  • If you do nothing, X will happen. [where X is undesirable and the speaker may well not be the cause]
  • If you do Y, then X will happen.

To make a threat, show how basic needs may be affected, for example showing how others would think less of  the person may be seen as a threat to esteem.

Note that a threat need not be a promise or accurate prediction. All it needs is for it to be perceived as sufficiently possible or sufficiently harmful to merit attention.


A parent tells a child that if they do not finish their homework, there will be no dinner.

A gangster mentions that they know where the target person's family live.

A photographer shows a picture of an angry person, which acts to arouse the view, triggering ancient defensive responses.


There is a deep evolutionary force that leads us to constantly scan for threats, and to interrupt normal thinking to handle any potential dangers that may appear.

We put more mental effort into things that may harm, distress or otherwise disadvantage us. Where there is immediate danger, whether it is physical or social, this can lead to the fight-or-flight reaction or other coping.

If the threat is more of a distant risk, we may seek ways to reduce the chance of it happening or planning to handle the risk should it occur. Distant threats may also seem less important as we discount more future possibilities.

When we do not fully understand what we perceive, and if it does not fit well with out models of the world, then we become confused and will put extra effort into making sense of the experience. As a default, we may perceive a confusing situation as a threat. This is a safety-oriented move. At the very least, confusion threatens our sense of control.

The threat that people feel may be quite different from that which is intended. Experienced threat can come from such diverse areas as primitive reaction (such as when seeing a snake), simple misunderstanding, and from a response to direct and obvious threat by another person.

Threat is often experienced as fear, although this may quickly convert to anger, depending on the nature of the person and their perception of the ability of the source to implement the threat (and defend against a response).

Threat can lead to counter-threat, which can escalate into direct conflict. Wars have been fought when people find no dignified way out of the escalation. Even the initial threat may be made from a sense of fear and being threatened in some way. When

Art can invoke threat responses with images of dark and danger. When we view scenes of night, of threatening-looking people or other hazard, we look closer, even when we know it is just an image. The general principle is that we cannot help experiencing triggered emotions even when we know they are not appropriate.

Artists deliberate break rules and cause confusion in order to make you think. Methods used include:

  • Non-natural hues.
  • Objects half-hidden or cropped.
  • People looking out of the frame at unseen things.
  • Unclear relationships between objects.
  • Hazy, defocused objects.

Threat can be both negative and positive, harming the person or helping them (or even giving them pleasure). For example threatening to tickle someone can make them aroused and laugh as they think of the feeling of being tickled. An important aspect of threat by another person is in the intent of that person, to harm us, to help us or to make us happy.

The timescale of a threat is often significant as we discount future harm to the point of seeing it as relatively harmless in the present. This is one reason why people take narcotic drugs. They know the damage that can be done but the threat to their health in the present seems relatively small.

Making a personal threat is often done using anger, although it can be done even in a calm way. While such negative threat is clearly unethical, it happens on a very regular basis and most people use it in some form at some times, often when they are desperate and know of no other way of getting what they want.

So what?

Use threat carefully, as if the other person sees you as threatening, they may simply avoid you or fight back hard. People who feel threatened can react in unexpected ways, especially if they see the threat as imminent. Think hard about the potential negative consequences for you before using direct threats.

The best way of using threat in changing minds is to show the other person that an independent threat exists, rather than directly threatening them with your personal action. If they see a threat from elsewhere, this gives you the opportunity to help them avoid or overcome that threat.

See also

Extrinsic Motivation



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