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Tension principle

Principles > Tension principle

Principle | How it works | So what



I will act to reduce the tension gaps I feel.

How it works

Tension is probably the fundamental driving force that moves us to change and is at the heart of virtually all persuasion techniques. Think of the 'good cop-bad cop' routine. What about all those retail displays that show you the things you don't have? How about babies crying in a pitch that nature has tuned to crawl up your spine?

How it feels

Tension is a feeling. Although usually internally sensed as an emotion, it actually is physical tension, where your muscles tense up involuntarily. It is uncomfortable and makes you want to do something to reduce the tension.

Emotions that are felt as tension include:  irritation, anger, fear, emptiness, hunger,  longing, wishing, discomfort, anticipation. 

Between two things

Tension happens between two things, like the hooks at either end of a stretched rubber band, such as:

  • What I have not got and what I want.
  • What I like and what I do not like.
  • What is good and what is bad.
  • What I think of myself and what others think of me.
  • What I do and what I believe I am.

The creation of tension is thus the identification of two contrasting items and the communication of this difference to the person being persuaded. It may seem very simple, but this is the bare core of most persuasion methods.

Present and future

The most common things that cause tension in persuasive situations are based in the present and in the future, whereby a given future is considered more desirable than the present, and where the desirable future requires us to act to change the continuation of the present. For example the action to change the undesirable present of not having a car is to go out and buy one.

Needs gap

If I threaten you physically, I have created a gap for you between your deep need for safety and the near-term future. Likewise if you tell me that you are no longer going to be my friend, you have created an identity needs gap for me. 

As needs are deep-programmed things, they will often be the most powerful gaps and hence most motivating. When there are many tension-creating gaps, needs gaps will take precedence. Likewise when there are many needs gaps, then the deeper needs, such as those lower in  Maslow's Hierarchy will come first.

Values gap

Values provide us rules for living that maintain our sense of personal integrity and allow us to live within the shared rules of a group of other people. Values tell us what we should and should not do, what is right and wrong, and what is more or less important.

When values are transgressed, we feel a sense of wrongness. If it is others who have violated the values, then we feel righteous, superior and indignant. When it is we who have wronged, then we feel shamed, guilty and fear the retribution of others in the group.

As we are very socially driven, values gaps are very powerful and the tension we feel may only be exceeded by that for needs gaps. 

Goals gap

We build our goals as ways to achieve our needs. When we do not achieve goals as expected or seem to be off-track on our way there, we feel frustrated and annoyed. 

The typical response to a goals gap is to redouble efforts, repeating what we have done. For example most people, when confronted with a foreigner who does not understand them, will repeat the same words, perhaps louder or slower. Only when the 'do it again' approach does not work do we change the strategy or tactics to achieve our goals. The frustration of the confused foreigner will either drive us to blame him or her for stupidity and walk away or resort to such as written diagrams or miming.

We will only revise our goals when we realize that there is very little chance of us achieving them. Revising goals creates tension itself as it is an admission of failure (and hence not meeting the need to win).

Positive and negative

Tension can be both positive and negative for us. There are many ways we can be made to feel unpleasantly uncomfortable, but there are also ways in which scariness can be pleasant, such as riding on roller-coasters.   

The anticipation when queuing up to see a new movie or the excitement of the story once we are inside are pleasant feelings. On the other hand, there are many ways we can be made to feel 

It is also possible to get positive and negative tension mixed up. Many people hate roller-coasters, even though they know they are perfectly safe. More hazardously, people can get stuck in damaging cycles, such as battered wives who become addicted to the abuse of their husbands (who are often also psychologically locked into the damaging behavioral pattern).

Relevant and distraction

When you want to persuade of something, there are tensions that relevant to the persuasion, both positive and negative, as above.

There are also distraction tensions that pull the person away from considering your point. This often appears as an attention issue and can be a big problem.

To manage tension in persuasion you need to increase positive tension while reducing both negative and dissuasive tensions.

Achieving or avoiding

We respond in two ways to tension, depending on how we view the two factors that are creating the tension. If we focus more strongly on a desirable future then this will pull us towards it as we seek to achieve that future. On the other hand, if we focus first on the undesirable present, they this has the effect to push us away from it as we seek to avoid a future where the discomfort remains.


If the tension is strong enough, we will not search for the best solution, we will simply grab at the first one that comes along that will do the job, even if there may be better solutions out there. This is called satisficing.


What happens in the brain during tension? It depends whether we are tensed by desire or more negative emotions.

Dopamine is traditionally associated with happiness, though in fact it has more to do with desire than satisfaction. Stimulating dopamine production hence creates tension.

Epinephrine (or, as it is commonly called, adrenaline) is produced in the fight-or-flight reaction as it prepares us for battle or running away. Anger and fear are emotions associated with these responses.

Other tensive emotions include anticipation, greed, hope, envy, love, shame, repulsion, contentment, anxiety, jealousy and contempt.

Positive attraction

Anticipation can be a powerful and exciting force and we look forward to expected moments of pleasure. In fact the anticipation can be more enjoyable than the actual experience--'It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive', as author Robert Louis Stephenson said.


There is a deep urge system within the brain that pressurizes us into important survival actions such as eating, fighting and sleeping.

When we feel these urges we feel the tension of needing to comply with the urge against any other desires, such as to stay up late or lose weight.

So what?

So once you have create sufficient trust, build the tension that will create movement. Find the two things that will create tension, often around an uncomfortable present and a  more desirable future. Understand how, when and where the person will move and design your tensions system to move them in the right direction.

See also

Cognitive Dissonance, Motivation, Needs, Zeigarnik effect, The Need for Arousal, Satisficing, Urge

Theories about how we handle discomfort


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