Fear, uncertainty, and doubt (abbreviated as FUD), are a collection of mental states that can influence people’s thinking in a variety of situations, and that are often used together to manipulate people’s behavior.
For example, a salesperson might push a customer to buy unnecessary software for their computer, by promoting FUD in various ways, such as exaggerating the risk of online threats and making the customer doubtful of their ability to handle those threats by themself.
People can experience FUD naturally in many situations, and FUD is often also used intentionally by various domains, such as business, media, and politics, so it’s important to understand this concept. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the FUD, understand why people are vulnerable to it, and see what you can do in order to account for it.
Examples of FUD
Many classic examples of FUD come from the worlds of sales and marketing. For instance, this can involve telling potential customers any of the following about a competing product, often in a misleading or disingenuous way:
- That the product suffers from technical problems.
- That the competitor is misrepresenting the product, which isn’t as good as they claim.
- That the competitor is rumored to be struggling financially, so they might shut down and leave customers with no support.
Furthermore, the following quote contains several examples of how FUD is used in this way by technology companies:
“Typically, a FUD campaign employs a variety of techniques, including warnings to customers concerning the risks of moving to an unproven new product, a barrage of press releases designed to confuse customers concerning the merits of the new product, and benchmark tests—generally rigged in the market-dominating firm’s favor—that raise questions about the new product’s performance.
The least loved of all FUD techniques, however, is vaporware, a product preannouncement that can be timed to steal the momentum from a competitor’s technologically superior product. Vaporware has a ‘vaporous’ quality; that is, it ‘does not exist at the time of the announcement and may never come into existence in anything like [its] described form’ (Prentice, 1996) and ‘exists only in the minds of those announcing the product’ (Dyson, 1987).
A well-orchestrated FUD campaign captures mindshare, the percentage of the market that has been successfully persuaded that grave risks to one’s company and job await those who switch to the new technology, even if it is vastly superior (Jenkins, 1988). It may also prevent new market entrants from gaining ground against the dominant firm, or even—as a judge once put it with compelling understatement—’induce them to exit the market.’”
— From “The rhetoric of dread: Fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) in information technology marketing” by Bryan Pfaffenberger (2000)
The above quote also illustrates how companies sometimes describe their own products in a way that increases customers’ FUD when it comes to competing products. Other examples of this appear in the following quote, again in the context of marketing in the tech industry:
“What’s the strategy? AMPLIFY the FUD state that is naturally present in your prospect’s mind for the competitor’s product and ALLEVIATE it for yours. Here’s how a computer manufacturer could do it. They might state:
- Our software is 100% backwards compatible with your existing software. [implication: some competitive systems are not.]
- Our hardware is 100% compatible with your current systems. [implication: some competitive systems are not.]
- Your staff will already know how to use the system, so you won’t have to re-train them. The competitors have a brand new operating system. [implication: re-training is an inevitability with the competitive system.]
- Our systems are already in use by over 1,000 companies similar to yours. It’s proven. [implication: competitive systems are not as proven.]”
Moreover, marketers sometimes promote FUD with regard to their own product with no connection to their competitors, in order to push the customer to make a purchase. For example, this can involve the following:
- Hinting that prices could go up in the future, so if the customer doesn’t make a decision now they might pay more later.
- Stating that an offer is limited to a certain number of units or a certain period of time, so if the customer doesn’t make a decision now they might miss out on it completely.
- Emphasizing that others have already taken advantage of this offer, so if the customer doesn’t make a purchase now they will be left out.
Similarly, these FUD-raising techniques can also involve things such as causing customers to be fearful or uncertain about what would happen if they don’t buy the product. For example, if a customer has a slightly old but fully functional phone, creating FUD can involve convincing them that their phone is highly vulnerable to hacking, even if that’s not really the case or not something that they should be reasonably concerned about.
Finally, other examples of FUD also appear in many other fields beyond sales and marketing. For example, it’s often used as a propaganda tool by governments and other political groups, as in the following fearmongering statement:
“If we don’t pass this law, who knows what kind of things criminals could do.”
Similarly, FUD is often used by media organizations. For example, the following is a title meant to promote FUD in potential readers, in order to encourage them to click the article if they encounter it on social media:
“The Three Most Dangerous Home Appliances That You Mistakenly Thought Were Safe”
How FUD is created and used
Various techniques can be used to create FUD where it didn’t exist before, to amplify it in cases where it already existed, or to manipulate people’s actions once they have sufficient FUD. Common techniques that are used to achieve this are the following:
- Making negative statements about the “opposition” (e.g. a competing company or an old product from the current company).
- Pushing people to focus on possible negative outcomes.
- Exaggerating the likelihood or impact of possible negative outcomes.
- Pushing people to focus on their own negative emotions.
- Overwhelming people with information that is difficult for them to process.
- Questioning people’s preexisting knowledge.
- Attacking people’s alternative sources of information.
FUD techniques generally take advantage of common patterns of thinking that people are predisposed to. This includes, for example, cognitive biases such as the authority bias, which makes people predisposed to believe authority figures, or the bandwagon effect, which causes people to think or act a certain way if they believe that others are doing the same.
Furthermore, FUD techniques often involve various fallacious arguments. This includes, for example, slippery slope arguments, which are arguments that suggest that a certain initial action could lead to a chain of events with a relatively extreme result, or that if we treat one case a certain way then we will have to treat more extreme cases the same way too. Similarly, this includes appeals to emotion, which are misleading arguments used with the goal of manipulating people’s emotions, with the most common of them in this context being the appeal to fear.
In addition, FUD techniques may focus on promoting only some aspects of FUD directly (e.g., just uncertainty), with the expectations that the other components will develop in turn. As one person notes:
“Uncertainty always creates doubt and doubt creates fear.”
— Oscar Munoz (as CEO of United Airlines, in a 2017 interview)
Finally, note that the use of FUD can sometimes vary based on various personal and situational factors, when it comes to how it can be used most effectively and to how it is used most commonly in practice. For example, FUD-based propaganda that is being promoted on a societal scale may be different from FUD-based marketing that appeals to a narrow subset of the population, which in turn may be different from FUD as it appears in a personal relationship. Nevertheless, the same general techniques can be used to use FUD in most situations, regardless of these factors, and there is much similarity in how FUD is used across different contexts.
Note: a related manipulation technique that’s sometimes used to create FUD is reverse psychology, which involves getting people to do something by prompting them to do the opposite.
How FUD spreads
Though FUD is often used intentionally as a manipulation technique, it can sometimes be created, promoted, and spread unintentionally. For example, if someone was the target of a FUD disinformation campaign, they might spread that disinformation further and promote FUD in others, without being aware that they’re doing so, and without being aware of the initial manipulation.
This can often occur on a large scale via availability cascades, which involve a self-reinforcing process where a certain stance gains increasing prominence in public discourse, which increases its availability to people and which therefore makes them more likely to believe it and spread it further.
Caveats about FUD
There are two caveats that are important to keep in mind when it comes to understanding and handing FUD.
First, even though FUD techniques are manipulative in nature, and are often based on various forms of misrepresentations of the truth, such as cherry-picking or outright lies, FUD techniques can also be based on truthful information, that is presented in a reasonable manner. This means that just because a certain piece of information was presented as part of a FUD campaign, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily false, and just because someone presented truthful information in a reasonable way, that doesn’t mean that they’re not engaging in a FUD campaign.
Second, the term “FUD” is primarily used with negative connotations, to refer to fear, uncertainty, and doubt that are used for manipulation purposes or that lead to negative outcomes (such as unwarranted panic). However, fear, uncertainty, and doubt are not inherently negative phenomena, and they can be reasonable and lead to positive outcomes in many situations. For example, uncertainty and doubt are important components of critical thinking, and as such can be beneficial in various fields, such as scientific research. Similarly, there are situations where fear of something is entirely reasonable, and helps people avoid dangerous situations that could cause them harm.
How to deal with FUD
To deal with FUD, you should identify your relevant fears, uncertainties, and doubts, figure out where they’re coming from, and then move to resolve them directly.
There are many ways in which you can achieve this, and your optimal course of action depends on your exact circumstances, which includes factors such as what kind of FUD you have and why. Nevertheless, in many cases, your best course of action is to first stop for a moment and just think through your FUD, by asking yourself what you’re feeling and what caused you to feel it.
When doing this, there are some concepts that can help you assess the situation better. For example, you can use the principle of cui bono, which in this case involves asking yourself “who benefits?” from creating, promoting, or using the FUD that you’re experiencing.
Furthermore, it can help to be aware of common issues that make people prone to FUD. This includes, for example, the cognitive biases that can lead to FUD, such as the bandwagon effect, as well as similar psychological phenomena, such as the fear of missing out.
Once you’ve properly assessed the situation, you’ll be better positioned to figure out how exactly you can account for your FUD, and, where possible, how to reduce it, or get it under control so that it won’t negatively influence your action.
In many situations, and particularly when FUD is based on certain cognitive biases, you can use relevant debiasing techniques in order to reduce those biases, which in turn could reduce the FUD that you’re experiencing. For example, you can slow down your reasoning process, in order to help yourself think more clearly and avoid an emotional reaction to bandwagon cues that are meant to trigger FUD. Similarly, you can set up an optimal environment for considering your FUD, which you can achieve, for instance, by creating distance from the source of the FUD.
In addition, when the FUD techniques rely on various logical fallacies and rhetorical techniques, it can help to learn how to identify and counter them. It can be especially useful to learn about common fallacious patterns that play a role in FUD techniques, such as slippery slope arguments and appeals to emotion, which were mentioned earlier, as well as strawman arguments, the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy, and equivocation.
Finally, there are also other concepts that you might find beneficial when it comes to dealing with FUD. For example, there’s the Sagan standard, which is the adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and which signifies that the more unlikely a certain claim is, given existing evidence on the subject, the greater the standard of proof that is expected of it. Similarly, there’s Knoll’s law of media accuracy, which suggests that people often assume that everything they hear in the media is true, except for cases where they’re familiar enough with the story in order to be able to identify the errors it contains, even though the existence of such cases suggests that the media gets other things wrong too.
Finally, when dealing with FUD, it’s important to remember that just because a certain point is made as part of a FUD campaign, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong. For example, if a company suggests that you shouldn’t buy a product from their competitor because the competitor’s product is unreliable, you should certainly be wary of what could be an attempt to create FUD, but you shouldn’t automatically assume that they’re wrong.
How to reduce FUD in others
You can deal reduce FUD in others similarly to how you reduce it in yourself, by helping them to first identify their relevant fears, uncertainties, and doubts, and then figure out where these feelings are coming from, and how they can be addressed. Furthermore, you can also reduce people’s FUD in other ways, such as by directly telling them things that address any fears, uncertainties, or doubts that they have.
In addition, it can sometimes be beneficial to present information that preemptively reduces any FUD that people might have. For example, if you’re selling a product, you could reduce people’s FUD toward it by doing things such as the following:
- Clearly explain how your product works and what kind of features it has.
- Have a section with answers to common questions that people have about your product.
- Offer a demo or a free trial to people who want to try out the product.
- Present supporting testimonials from previous customers.
- Present supporting endorsements from leading figures in your field.
- Clearly outline your pricing model and refund policy.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that how you present information can also be important when it comes to reducing FUD. For example, if your website looks suspicious, it can promote FUD in people, even if your product is actually good. Conversely, if your website looks good, this can make people think that you’re more reliable, and reduce some of the FUD that they have. This is associated with the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes our impression of someone or something in one domain to influence our impression of them in other domains.
The origin and history of FUD
The term “FUD” is attributed to computer architect and entrepreneur Gene Amdahl. He used it to describe the behavior of IBM, a company that he initially worked for, and that he eventually left and competed against through a company that he founded in 1970, called Amdahl Corporation:
“Amdahl himself used a telling phrase to describe this IBM-instilled skepticism: the FUD Factor, referring to fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FUD was, and still is, a most effective weapon for IBM.”
— From “Big Blue: IBM’s use and abuse of power” by Richard Thomas DeLamarter (1986)
A similar statement that is often attributed to Amdahl is the following:
“FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering [Amdahl] products.”
This statement can be traced back to the entry on FUD in the Jargon Files. However, the original source of the statement could not be identified, and so there is no clear evidence showing that Amdahl said it, though it is nevertheless in line with what other sources say were his general sentiments on the topic.
In addition, note that although the acronym “FUD” and the modern sense of the term were popularized during the 1970s, mentions of “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” appeared in various formulations and contexts before. A notable earlier formulation is “doubts, fears, and uncertainties”, which frequently appeared in religious contexts as early as 1693, and which is still used today.
Finally, note that the acronym FUD is sometimes also used to refer to “fear, uncertainty, and disinformation”, in place of “fear, uncertainty, and doubt”, though this meaning of the term is less common.
Summary and conclusions
- Fear, uncertainty, and doubt (abbreviated as FUD), are a collection of mental states that can influence people’s thinking in a variety of situations, and that are often used together to manipulate people’s behavior.
- For example, a salesperson might push a customer to buy unnecessary software for their computer, by promoting FUD in various ways, such as exaggerating the risk of online threats and making the customer doubtful of their ability to handle those threats by themself.
- Common FUD techniques include exaggerating the likelihood or impact of possible negative outcomes, attacking people’s sources of information, and overwhelming people with information that is difficult for them to process, all of which is meant to either create FUD, amplify existing FUD, or use FUD to manipulate people’s behavior directly, though people can also spread FUD unintentionally.
- To deal with FUD in yourself and in others, you should identify the relevant fears, uncertainties, and doubts, figure out where they’re coming from, and then move to resolve them directly, using appropriate techniques, such as examining relevant information, creating distance from the source of the FUD, and debiasing associated cognitive biases (e.g., the bandwagon effect).
- Just because something causes FUD, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily false, and just because someone presented truthful information in a reasonable way, that doesn’t mean that they’re not engaging in a FUD campaign.