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Fear or coercion as motivators

It seems there’s a fairly common assumption that we, as humans, need to be made to change our behaviour: that threats or promises are normal tools for enticing us to leave our habitual comfort zones and do what is expected of us. But surely this raises a great deal of questions, not least of which being ‘where does it lead?’

By my understanding, it’s a view of human nature that emphasises the power of psychological and social factors in driving changes: that we respond fairly ‘well’ to the carrot and the stick, as our desire to belong makes rejection or pain the perfect leverage. And it’s clearly pretty widespread thinking, with incentives and punishments forming core principles within education, taxation, social provision and so on.

My concern though is with how it seems to oversimplify and underplay our capacity for understanding, turning instead to our more sub-conscious tendencies. Are we creatures to be tricked behind our own backs, or beings that can be treated with respect and encouraged to think for ourselves? That, of course, may not be the easiest of questions to answer (see Notes One).

Having a sense of what keeps society together and serves us all best is obviously an incredibly important thing to hold in mind, but it certainly doesn’t seem straightforward (Notes Two). Yet these very direct attempts to motivate our behaviour in given directions surely imply a clear idea on where we’re headed, how, and why. Whether we’re talking about social or economic realities, there appear to be strategies at play.

And that’s not necessarily to judge, as all these things need to be organised somehow. It’s just that the lack of clarity and therefore freedom around some of the ‘choices’ we’re presented with also seems worth keeping in mind.

Because it’s certainly insightful to consider the weight such influences can have over our actions in life (Notes Three). I can see why governments, businesses and people in general would want to understand human psychology then use it for their own ends. After all, this knowledge is a tool at everyone’s disposal, and much of life can be seen as using our resources to meet genuine or manufactured needs.

But, in that, I would’ve thought responsibility, transparency and respect are paramount. If we are to use social or psychological means for influencing others to act in accordance with what we deem to be their (or our) best interests, surely we need to be quite careful? And if we are to entrust important aspects of our decisions in life to such guidance, it might be good to be clear on that too.

Personally, I’ve never been keen on being directed beyond my conscious awareness; although obviously it takes some weight off decision-making (Notes Four). As an alternative, educating people so they’re capable of handling complex realities and interrelationships, aware of the deeper significance of their roles and responsibilities, and freely able to shift course as their understanding broadens might be a brighter path to follow.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Laws and lawlessness
Note 1: Zimbardo & the problem of evil
Note 1: The human spirit
Note 2: People, rules & social cohesion
Note 2: Human nature and community life
Note 3: Tell me why I should
Note 3: The motivation of money
Note 3: Age, politics and human reasoning
Note 3: Need to suffer in order to change?
Note 4: “Paradox of Choice”
Note 4: “The Tipping Point”

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