Force Vs Persuasion, What Motivates Us? Atala Writes

In understanding how human beings work, one of the things I have pondered is what motivates people. I'm sure there are all sorts of factors involved, but it seems most of the motivators fall into two categories - those which hold out the promise of something good happening as a result, and those which hold out the threat of something bad happening. I'm talking here about force and persuasion.


For a lot of people, force is the more appealing of the two. It's certainly a lot easier and quicker to use than persuasion - when persuading someone, not only do you have to rack your brains to figure out what he might like and ensure that you are able to offer it to him, you also have to figure out how to present your proposal in such a way that he will accept it. Of course, there's no guarantee that he will accept it on its first presentation - he might need some time to first become comfortable with the idea.

But when forcing someone to do something, you don't have to work to hard to figure out what he doesn't like - all you have to do is to think of anything involving lots of pain and suffering. So this means that with force, not only do you not have to tax your mind too much, but you can get what you want done much more quickly, since it is usually possible to come up with a sanction severe enough to get the object of your force to agree to your demands quickly.

There is also a third type of motivator which I prefer to call ‘negative persuasion'. This is where you make a person refrain from carrying out an action by removing the promise of something good happening as a result of the action (i.e. you make it less attractive to carry out the action), as long as the person is not substantially harmed by not being able to enjoy the promised good. An example of this would be putting up a fence round my property to deter people who might want to take a shortcut by walking through it.

So if force is so easy to use, then why isn't it used anyhow? Well, if force was the default method of getting people to do what you want, the result would be a 'jungle justice' society full of fear and repression. Since freedom of thought and action weren't encouraged, there would be little chance that new ideas would develop and the society would progress materially. In fact, I believe that an index of how civilised and free a society is how much persuasion and how much force is used in getting people to do things - the more persuasion that is used, the more freedom there is. Incidentally, I also believe that persuasion is the hallmark of enlightened capitalism - a businessman should convince you of the merits of his goods/services via persuasion, not by getting someone (probably the government) to get you to buy his goods.

Fortunately, most people understand that indiscriminate use of force can result in the kind of society described above and that force should only be used where there is some sort of wider benefit to society. Still, people still tend to favour solutions involving the use of force, which is why you hear solutions like “Fix the price of this commodity at such and such a price” or “Shoot all people caught doing so and so”. They are direct and can easily be understood, hence their appeal.

The trouble with this is that solutions involving the use of force don't involve getting a deep understanding of the causes of the problem - they make the assumption that a problem will stop if enough coercion is applied. Sometimes, this means that only the symptoms of the problem are dealt with, and even dealing with these may cause unexpected and undesirable side effects to manifest elsewhere.

Also, the problem with force is that if the person you are applying it to isn't really convinced that you are right, he will return to his old ways as soon as the threat of force recedes. Even if he knows that what you want him to do is right, force has to be applied for a long enough time for the desired behaviour to become a habit - which is why WAI and numerous other such programmes are just a memory today.

On the other hand, the use of persuasion to change people's behaviour involves actually getting to the root of the problem (by trying to understand what the person wants and seeing how this want can be satisfied). This engages the mind, and means that there's a greater chance of a creative solution being arrived at. The solution is more likely to be sustainable, since the person who has been persuaded is doing what he's doing of his *own* conviction, not because someone told him to do so.

So am I saying force should never be used? No. As has been noted, force has its uses where there is a wider benefit to society. For me, one of the few legitimate uses of force by an authority is in a situation where a criminal is attempting to deprive someone else of his life, his freedom or his property. In this case there is simply not enough time to try and persuade the criminal not to do so, or the criminal will not accept any persuasion, and only force will work against the criminal. The benefits to society are that everyone feels that they can live their life and hold their property in safety. It is certainly also possible to use force *and* persuasion in parallel (i.e. dealing with criminals by force while also using persuading would-be criminals not to go into a life of crime and removing the things that make crime attractive).

The problem is where force is viewed as the first and only approach towards solving any problem in society, where it is viewed as some sort of ‘magic wand' which, because it is so easy to use, becomes used indiscriminately, instead of being used as a last resort. This can easily lead to the kind of repressive society that I spoke of earlier on, where taking someone's property and distributing it to other people is viewed as a solution to poverty and is therefore justifiable. But I suspect that as long as it is easier to think of a solution involving force instead of racking the brain to think of creative solutions involving persuasion, this will more often than not continue be the case.

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