Most of us may have witnessed times where the fear of failure is used as an effective tool to bring out the best or to make people perform. On the other hand, performing under constant fear may result into poor performance.

When one does certain remarkable tasks in a particular field under pressure or force(in this case, the fear of failure), then can it be said that he/she has mastered the field or is a veteran? Because all he/she has done is out of fear. It's just the brain's response to something which seems a threat.

So, can we consider fear of failure(o any other kind o fear) as a good ad ethical source to get a work done?

  • If someone achieves world peace, but did it out of fear of a global thermonuclear war, does it mean it is no achievement just because it was done out of fear?
    – celtschk
    May 16, 2014 at 22:10

3 Answers 3


I would argue against that fear of failure is as good of a motivator as confidence in oneself's success and domination.
Let's consider following situation:
Game is won by best of 5
Player1 has 2 victories.
Player2 has 0 and 2 losses.
Player2 is driven by fear of loss as he is only one game away from defeat.
Player1 is driven by confidence as he need to fail all 3 games in a row to loose.

In given scenario Player1 will benefit more from employing risky strategy because if he losses it's not tragic - he has 2 more games. Player2 on the other hand does not have this luxury and will try to play most standard game because of his fear of loss and therefore is more likely to loose to 'all in' strategy.

  • But sometimes some kind of people perform well only under pressure. Most of the children only study out of fear. In your example, isn't it possible that Player2 adopts a completely new strategy because he thinks of it as his last chance and feels he should win it anyhow?
    – Yashbhatt
    May 16, 2014 at 16:48
  • 1
    @Yashbhatt I would say he MUST pull some rabbits out of the hat otherwise he is done for, but there have to be rabbits in the had in the first place. Jul 11, 2014 at 13:39
  • But maybe he already has rabbits and if he doesn't maybe he seeks them from somewhere.
    – Yashbhatt
    Jul 11, 2014 at 14:19

Couple different points:

To your question, "can it be said that he/she has mastered the field?" I would look to the Dreyfus model for guidance. Certainly, some people can have successes coming from fear of failure. Whether they attain status as an expert is more a function of how they've processed failure. An expert is someone who has processed failure by becoming self aware and understands at a deep level why they failed. So, it doesn't seem that "fear" is really the important thing in determining whether someone has gained mastery.

Second, whether fear is "good and ethical source" or not, I would look at the Kohlberg stages of moral development. Avoiding punishment is the lowest form of moral development according to Kohlberg. So, certainly we can say that someone who continues to use fear of failure or punishment as their only motivator has not advanced morally. I think you also need to distinguish between "Is it ethical for me to use fear to motivate myself?" and "Is it ethical for me to use fear to motivate others?" In the former case, you are keeping yourself at a low-level of maturity (which is probably not good), and in latter you are potentially repressing someone else's moral maturity (also, not good).


There are several dimensions to consider.

Pre-note: To fear consequence of losing or not gaining that which is valued by the self is a natural instinct. Even the sympathy-driven fear of certain others suffering consequences is natural enough.

Firstly there is nature of the consequence itself. Is it threat of losing or not gaining that which one would consider a right or a privilege (a right to live versus the right to watch TV)?

Secondly - the nature of the challenge set - whether such is cooperative or competitive (is the individual rewarded for personal proficiency or are multiple individuals assessed as a group or are multiple individuals assessed against each other?)

Thirdly - Consent. Are the participants willing or forced?

The nature of the consequence and the nature of the challenge set determines whether the fear of failure instilled is ethical or not.

The following is an attempt to apply the above. I am not completely happy and welcome suggestions for improvement.


A) Win or Die

  • Challenge = Russian Roulette - Cooperative or Competitive
  • Consequence = 1/6 chance of death, 5/6 chance of a motivation (assuming one round)
  • Consent = Technically yes (with plenty of room for discussion and controversy attached)

Since the fear of failure is the fear of losing one's life - and arguable one could posit that one has the right to live, the ethics of setting up the challenge is questionable at best.

B) Job Bonus

  • Challenge = Work Performance - Cooperative or Competitive
  • Consequence = Not gaining a bonus to paycheck
  • Consent = Yes (generally)

A work performance bonus is nice - its not a right but its certainly welcome. Making it competitive such that the second best is left with nothing regardless of how stellar his or her performance is rather mean however.

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