The Psychology of Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 2)

Now, what do we mean by the concept of “coercion”?  The dictionary offers this as a definition for “coerce”: “to persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.”  This is a helpful starting point, I think, particularly inasmuch as it helps to free us from an overly physical mental image we might have of coercion.  My guess is that when most of us hear “coercion” we visualize policemen wielding batons, beating someone into submission, or perhaps a group of people being forced at gunpoint to do some task. 

But coercion does not necessarily consist in such bald displays of physical force.  Indeed, if we are to take the definition offered here, then pure force does not count as “coercion”–if someone is bound and hauled along on a rope, then there is no persuasion involved, but mere force (thus, it is helpful to distinguish between “violence” and “coercion” more carefully than much contemporary discourse does).  Indeed, I would suggest that the “threats” part of the definition offered above is generally much more prominent than “force,” for except in cases such as torture where overwhelming violent force is used to break down all will to resist, it is generally the threat of violent force that persuades.  If someone puts a gun to my head and tells me to blaspheme, they are attempting to persuade me to blaspheme by the threat of the violence (in this case, fatal violence) they might do to me otherwise.  In short, then, coercion operates by the tool of fear.  If I do not fear death, or if I fear it less than I fear blasphemy, then this attempted coercion fails to be coercive.   

Coercion is often defined in contrast to the voluntary–we do the voluntary because we want to, the coercive because we have to.  But it is apparent from the blasphemy illustration that the voluntary element always has, in theory, the possibility of triumphing over the coercive–I could always choose to do something else than what someone is trying to coerce me to do (and if I do, it is presumably because the threats being made seem less dangerous than the consequences of giving into them, as in the blasphemy illustration).  This simple duality of voluntary and coerced is thus not all that helpful, and most of our decisions actually lie somewhere on a spectrum being the completely unconstrained and the completely constrained.  So I want to step back from the simple voluntary vs. coerced duality and suggest instead a triad, based on consideration of how persuasion actually works.


I would submit that humans are persuaded to action by one or more of three basic motivations: fear, reward, and love.  Fear is the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall us, reward is the hope for something good or pleasant that we may receive, and love is the wish for good to befall another.* 

Now I recognize of course that these three are not always so distinguishable in practice.  Love, for instance, though it ought to be unselfish, is generally not utterly selfless, nor indeed should it be, and thus the motivation of love seems linked with the desire for reward.  For instance, when I seek to make my wife happy, because I love her, I generally find my own happiness in that, whether in the cruder sense that I expect that she will reciprocate by doing nice things for me, or in the somewhat “nobler” sense that I take joy in seeing her happy.  However, the fact that desiring another’s good usually (and rightly) includes a desire for one’s own concomitant good does not mean that we cannot distinguish between which of these two motivations is dominant.  For instance, we are quite capable of recognizing the difference between a man who uses a woman merely for his own pleasure and one who takes joy in making her happy.  Additionally, while I have defined fear as “the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall us,” there is also a kind of fear that is a by-product of love, namely, the expectation of something evil or unpleasant that may befall another.  If someone threatens my wife, I may be afraid because I love her.  For now, we can treat this kind of fear as an element of love, but I will return to consider it further in Part 5, when I try to develop a constructive ethical appraisal of these motivations.

Likewise, it is not always so easy to distinguish between reward and fear.  Logically, indeed, it is possible to treat them as completely convertible.  If for instance I promised my son that I would give him ice cream if he did such-and-such, we could say that he obeys out of fear of the unpleasant outcome that he will not get ice cream; or alternatively, if I threatened him that he would be grounded if he did such-and-such, we could say that he obeys out of desire for the reward of continued liberty.  However, this misrepresents our actual experience–if I do something because I want ice cream, I experience myself as doing it out of desire for ice cream, not out of fear of not-ice-cream.  Nevertheless, there are situations where these two often do seem to become interchangeable.  Consider a social situation: I may go to a party because I want to experience the pleasure of others’ company, or I may go because I am afraid of being left out; we can distinguish between these two in theory, but in practice, I may not know myself which is the better characterization of my motivation.  Indeed, what begins as the first–desire for the reward of others’ company–may quickly, because of my insecurities, morph into the fear of exclusion.  (This relationship between fear and reward will be important later on.)  

There are even cases where all three motivations seem to be potentially in play.  For instance, do we serve God because we love Him and want to glorify Him, or because we desire the reward of heavenly bliss, or because we fear the terrors of hell?

Now, from the illustrations I have already given, it should be clear that we have a general hierarchy in our minds of these motivations: love is highest, then reward, then fear (in the abstract, at least).  For instance, we will think highly of someone who goes to a party he doesn’t enjoy because of love for his wife, who really wants to go; we will have no particular praise or blame for the person who goes to the party because he takes pleasure in the company of others there; we will criticize the insecurity of the person who goes to the party simply because he fears the idea of others enjoying themselves together without him.  This hierarchy is of course not absolute, and any of the three motivations may be legitimate in certain situations (for instance, any of the three motivations for serving God has a certain basis in Scripture, even if we might want to put the emphasis on the first.).  In most situations, though, it seems that we want to encourage a motivation of love conjoined with (in a subordinate position) a motivation of reward–a situation in which someone acts out of benefit for a neighbor and simultaneously seeks his own benefit therein–and to discourage motivations of fear.  But I will reserve a proper ethical discussion of what we should think of these various motivations till the end. 

For now, it suffices to note that based on what we said above about coercion, it seems that coercion is the attempt to persuade someone through the motivation of fear.  In the next segment, I will seek to apply the analysis of these three motivations, and the fear motivation in particular, to the sphere of economic life.


*There is, I suppose, a fourth motivation that we could consider, hate–however, I think that we can leave this out of consideration here because structurally, it is simply the inverse of love, and therefore can only serve as a positive motivation if it is couple with a corresponding love of which it is the shadow–e.g., love good, hate evil–otherwise, it can only motivate negative action.  Thus I don’t think that omitting hate from consideration here will undermine any of the following argument–but if anyone thinks it does, please tell me and I will try to refine accordingly. 

3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Coercion (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 2)

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey, did you miss the footnote (the small type at the bottom)? I mentioned that fourth motive, but said that I thought I could safely leave it out of the following analysis. However, I may try to stick in a few brief mentions of it where relevant.


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