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Friday, March 3, 2023

4 Ways to Influence People’s Behavior Besides Coercion

There are a lot of possibilities we often overlook.

Image Credit: Pixabay

While people have wildly different views on the proper role of government, most would agree that coercive laws should at least be a last resort. If we can change someone’s behavior without using threats of violence, great, but if we can’t, well, then it’s time to call the politicians.

This position raises an important question that doesn’t get as much attention as it should: what exactly are the other options we can resort to before using coercion? If we agree coercion should be a last resort, it’s incumbent upon us to first thoroughly explore and exhaust other possible means of changing someone’s behavior. Yet so often it seems we fail to do this and instead take our problems straight to the ballot box.

So, in an effort to at least minimize the number of times we ask the government to get involved, here are four ideas for non-violent ways to influence other people’s behavior.

1) Persuasion

The simplest way to change someone’s behavior without using threats of violence is to persuade them that what they’re doing is wrong. If they are taking a drug you don’t approve of or making business decisions you consider unethical, it takes very little effort to present them with evidence and reasoning that shows why they should change course.

I know this sounds simplistic and I know it’s often unsuccessful, but that doesn’t mean we should simply refuse to try. In the spirit of making coercion a genuine last resort, we owe it to ourselves to at least attempt persuasion first.

And trying doesn’t just mean making the first argument that pops into our heads. It’s also about becoming the best persuaders we can be. Have you tried finding common ground with the person, or identifying their moral foundations? Have you looked for possible compromises? Persuasion can be far more effective than we think if we take the time to get good at it.

2) Shame

Another way we can influence people’s behavior is by shaming them into doing what we think is right. This approach is certainly less palatable than persuasion, but is it not preferable to coercion?

There are many examples of how shame and social pressure more broadly can be used to influence people’s behavior. For instance, many people in our culture save sex for marriage, not because they think it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage, but just because there’s a social stigma around it. There is also social pressure to be polite and have good manners, to run your business ethically, and to avoid foul language. Sometimes it’s a person’s personal ethics that prompts them to do these things, but sometimes it’s just the fear of being shamed if they don’t.

Humans are very social creatures. We want to be accepted by our tribe. So if you want someone to change their behavior, remember that a little social pressure can go a long way.

3) Dealmaking

This one takes a little creativity, but it can open up a tremendous range of possibilities we hadn’t even considered. Let’s say your neighbor does something you really don’t like. Maybe their front lawn is always a mess. It’s overgrown, there’s trash everywhere, and it just looks terrible.

Let’s say they also have a grievance with you. Maybe you just painted your garage door and they hate the color.

Now, you could try to pass a law mandating that they keep their lawn a certain way, and they might try to pass a law mandating what color you can paint your garage door. But instead, what if you got together and made a deal? “If you keep your lawn according to these standards, I’ll paint my garage a color you approve of.” You sign a contract (such as a restrictive covenant) and boom, problem solved. No government required. It won’t always work out this way, of course. But again, the question is, have you at least tried making a deal?

If you’re really keen on avoiding coercion but also can’t stand someone’s choices, you could even pay them to change their behavior. “I’ll give you $20 a month to keep your lawn nice,” you might tell your neighbor. Some might call that a bribe, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As Murray Rothbard keenly points out in Man, Economy, and State, “A ‘bribe’ is only payment of the market price by a buyer.”

The point is, people can be convinced to do (or not do) an awful lot if there’s something in it for them.

4) Disassociation

The final tool that can be used to non-coercively influence a person’s behavior is disassociation. In short, you refuse to interact with them as long as they continue in the behavior you don’t like (or if they refuse to adopt a behavior you’d like them to).

One of the more common forms of disassociation is a boycott. Pressure groups eager to force a change in certain business practices simply stop buying that business’s product, hoping that the loss in revenue will prompt the business to change course.

Disassociation can also be far more personal, as in the case of social ostracism. Here a person is deliberately excluded from a community or organization on account of their undesired behavior, and is only welcome back if they change their ways.

Ostracism is one of the most powerful non-violent tools in our toolkit. In fact, threats of ostracism might even be more effective at changing someone’s behavior than threats of violence. If the key to playing the sports you like, attending the church you like, or working the job you like is acting a certain way, you’ve got a pretty strong incentive to act that way, even if there’s no government law saying you have to.

Influence Need Not Be Political

As humans, we care a lot about how other people behave. It’s only natural for social beings. And this isn’t a bad thing! We should care.

But while it’s not wrong to try to influence other people’s behavior, how we go about it can make a big difference. Ideally, coercion wouldn’t even be on the table. But if you insist on keeping it as an option, at least resolve to make it a last resort, and to constantly ask yourself if you’ve honestly exhausted all other options before resorting to it.

When we jump straight to “this should be banned” or “this should be mandated,” we end up politicizing everything, and the result is a culture that increasingly revolves around an endless fight for political power.

It’s tempting in such a culture to make sure “we” win the political game, but this is not the solution. The solution is for all sides to seek out non-coercive, non-political means of achieving their ends. Only when we do that can we have true peace, freedom, and social harmony.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.


  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.