August 19th, 2003


Persuade and coerce

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On my bus ride home from the office today, I read an article in I.E.E.E. Transactions on Software Engineering. Most of the time, articles in this journal are academic in nature, and rarely do they touch on practical aspects of software engineering. Most of the time I skim to see if anyone's research has any practical use in my work.

The issue I read though, had an article on ethical considerations in software engineering research. One of the tenets the authors accept is that research subjects must give informed consent. The accompanying example is one where a professor asks her students to participate in research for an article she wishes to publish. The authors' contention is that because of the professor-student relationship, there can be no informed consent because of the ability of the professor to affect grades. The relationship is inherently coercive, according to the authors.

To me, this is a symptom of our victim society. That any use of ones influence or even the ability to influence transforms an interaction to one of coercion in our eyes. There is no bright line between persuasion and coercion.

Some actions clearly are coercion. Pointing a gun at someone while asking them for their wallet leaves the victim with few choices and dire consequences of for choosing wrongly. Other threats could be simply persuasion: threatening a child with the loss of dessert for instance.

One possible taxonomy for distinguishing between persuasion and coercion is whether the influence will remove something the victim already has, versus rewarding the target with extra benefits. The former clearly has a tendency to be coercive while the latter would generally be classified as persuasion. And yet, that distinction doesn't hold up well either. Offering a starving person a piece of pie in return for an action could be considered coercive. Offering that same piece of pie to my fat nephew would likely not.

In an ideal world, we all would be strong and able to evaluate our choices and be capable of turning down bad bargains. Ultimately even coercion is a bargain, albeit one with dire consequences. Sadly, we have placed ourselves in a position as a culture where we consider ourselves as leaves amidst a hurricane, blown about with no choice of our own when from a vantage point outside the system, an observer might consider us granite strangely floating in the breeze.

Were we to realize we are indeed granite, not subject to whim except as we ignore the basic laws of physics, we would plummet Wile E. Coyote-like to the canyon floor. So we labor on thinking that we are leaves, or that it is too dangerous to become granite. I weep.

Back to the argument that brought me to this: we ought to consider much more influence under the banner of persuasion rather than coercion, freeing ourself from just one small bond that hinders us.