posttitle = Coercion in terms of scarcity & perceptual control titleClass =title-long len =55

Coercion in terms of scarcity & perceptual control

The following is a piece I wrote a year ago. A few months back I started editing it for publication and it started evolving and inverting and changing so dramatically that I found myself just wanting to publish the original as a snapshot of where my thinking was at about a year ago when I first drafted this. I realized today that attempts to write canonical pieces are daunting because there’s a feeling of having to answer all questions for all time, and that instead I want to just focus on sharing multiple perspectives on things, which can be remixed and refined later and more in public. So, with some minor edits but no deep rethinking, here’s one take on what coercion is. And you might see more pieces here soon that I let go of trying to perfect first.

Coercion = “the exploitation of the scarcity of another, to force the other to behave in a way that you want”

The word “behave” is very important in the above definition. Shooting someone and taking their wallet isn’t coercion, as bad as it is. Neither is picking their pocket when they’re not paying attention. But threatening someone at gunpoint and telling them to hand over their wallet (or stand still while you take it) is coercion. This matches commonly accepted understandings of the word, as far as I know.

A major inspiration for this piece is Perceptual Control Theory, a cybernetic model of cognition and action, which talks about behavior as the control of perception. I’m also mostly going to talk about interpersonal coercion here—self-coercion is similar but subtler.


If someone has a scarcity of food, you can coerce them by feeding them conditional on them doing what you want. This is usually called slavery. One important thing to note is that it requires you physically prevent them from feeding themselves any other way! Which in practice usually also involves the threat of violence if they attempt to flee and find a better arrangement.

In general, a strategy built on the use of coercion means preferring that the coerced agent continue to be generally in a state of scarcity, because otherwise you would be unable to continue to control them! (Because they could just get their need met some other way and therefore wouldn’t have to do what you say!)

Most people in our societies have some scarcity of money, and many jobs involve taking advantage of people having such scarcities, in order to get them to do whatever the boss wants them to do (to the extent the boss can actually measure this, which is a common challenge). It’s pretty clear to me, and I think to most people if they think about it, that this is pretty limited in how well it can motivate people to do anything remotely creative or hard to measure. You can get someone to have their butt in the chair 9-to-5, you can get them to be somewhat polite maybe even in the face of being disrespected by the boss or customers, and if you have another specialist who can assess whether their work output is appropriate, you can maybe get some pressure on them to produce solid output.

This is to be contrasted with someone who is skilled, enjoys their work, & has lots of job opportunities—they’re somewhat immune to employment-based exploitation since they can seek out self-directed work they’d do for fun, rather than suffering to serve another’s will, just in order to eat. They’re motivated towards solving problems that interest them, getting into flow states, and working at the edge of their ability.

And of course many people are somewhere in between. They kind of enjoy their work, and they have some negotiating power, but they also long for a better arrangement.

In rare cases, it can go the other way: a skilled specialist can have so much leverage that they can practically coerce a raise out of their employer by threatening to quit. Usually this is more of a negotiation, but not always.

Scarcity of what?

It’s not just readily-quantifiable resources like food, money, shelter, possessions, twitter followers.

People feel a scarcity of social well-being, love, respect, and interpersonal okayness more generally, so others can control their behavior by shaming them or withholding love until/unless the person does what they want.  (Self-coercion is a kind of motivational strategy that basically operates based on feeling bad until you do something.)

Again, use of such a coercive strategy requires that the person be in a chronic state of not-enoughness; otherwise you can’t control them. This is incompatible with enlightenment & advanced stages of development, as far as I can tell, plus at odds with overall health & well-being.

Meanwhile, people can find other non-coercive motivations for wanting to do the sorts of things we sometimes think we need to coerce them into!

Some quick examples:

1. Personally if I’m in a circle or co-what-now and someone points out that I’m doing something that’s getting in the way of group coherence, then I want to untangle that for entirely selfish reasons: group flow is fucking ecstatic and wonderful and I want to experience it as much as possible.

2. If someone I’m living with wants me to be quiet at night so they can sleep, then even though I love loud music and staying up late, I’m inclined to find a way to satisfy them (while also satisfying myself as much as possible) because:

  • I want them to be happy
  • I want them to enjoy living with me
  • my life is better to the extent that the people living with me are happy overall and glad to be living with me

And in both cases, to the extent that my motivation is oriented towards group flow or happier housemate (not just avoiding shame or guilt or people being mad at me) then I’ll be creatively attempting to find win-wins, rather than:

  • goodharting
  • virtue signalling
  • trying to avoid getting caught doing the thing people don’t like

So there are multiple reasons why noncoercive motivation, when it’s flowing, completely outclasses coercive motivation:

  • it doesn’t goodhart or incentivize hiding
  • it doesn’t require sustaining states of scarcity
  • it doesn’t involve adding extra problems: the problems are as bad as they are, but no worse

A longer case study: win-win or coercion?

Suppose we’re housemates, and I propose an ongoing arrangement where you cook us both dinner but I buy the ingredients.

Is this coercive? Depends!

If we hew closely to this model that requires scarcity as a component, then it’s unlikely to be inherently coercive if both of us have enough food & money, though there could be some sort of guilt-based or status-based pressure creating the relevant tension.

Suppose that you’re completely broke though. Then is it necessarily coercive?

Maybe. But let’s unpack it!

Let’s first explore: am I trying to coerce you?

Even in that situation, suppose I’m like “you’re my friend… I really want you to be able to eat and not have to move out… hmm… I don’t really have time to make food, so I’m currently spending money on eating out, but I could save that money and thus afford more groceries, if you can prepare it.” Here there’s a sense in which I’m strategizing to find a way to solve your problem that might work for you and also for me. Seems like I’m looking for a win-win!

Whereas if I’m like “hmm I definitely want a chef, hey who’s someone who’s desperate enough that I can get them to full-time cook for both of me for nothing more than the price of some groceries?” then that’s… not so good? But even there it’s pretty subtle, and there’s also nothing wrong with me wanting to solve my own problems!

It seems to me, upon some reflection, that the real difference comes back to something I said at the start:

  • if I’m engaging in a coercive strategy, I prefer for the other person to stay in a state of scarcity & desperation, so I can keep exploiting them!
  • if I’m using a collaborative or co-creative strategy, I prefer for them to access a state of abundance, from which I expect us to be able to find even better win-wins!

This implies that to the extent that a given culture isn’t skilled at finding win-wins (not just compromises) then the people in that culture will naturally tend to feel threatened by others’ abundance, because it increases the possibility that they themselves may end up getting coerced. This is a topic to be expanded on in depth at another time. I may start collecting thoughts here.

I broadly think that an overall attitude of attempting to find win-wins (vs attempting to control others’ behavior using whatever hooks of scarcity you can find) is possible even in the context of substantial scarcity, as long as you’re not literally competing for food to live on.

There’s a second question: do you feel coerced?

As far as I can tell, this is somewhat independent of my actual intent! I might be trying to find a win-win, but for whatever reason you don’t trust that I’m actually on your side! There’s some reason for that distrust, whatever it is, and I wouldn’t discount it.

Part of whether you feel coerced is going to come down to whether you really feel like you have other viable options, and part of that might involve whether I’d support you to take those other options or whether you feel like I’m trying to pressure you into feeling like this is the only way.

There’s also a big difference between whether you love cooking and would be happy to cook (you just can’t afford the groceries) vs would find it onerous. That affects whether it feels like my proposal is enabling you to do something you like doing, or whether it feels like it’s forcing you to do something you don’t really want to do. Self-energizing motivation.

Another element involves whether the arrangement ends up feeling like a kind of indignity for you, or feels like we’re on a team, although I’m not sure whether to say that indignity is a cause of coercion or an effect of coercion.

Other things to consider:

There’s nothing inherent to the cooking scene that means the coercion would have to flow in that direction. Suppose I was super busy and bad at cooking (scarcity!) …then you might be able to coerce me into buying groceries on the basis that you’d cook them. This one is more structurally unlikely since whatever I was already doing was probably already a tolerable alternative, but it’s broadly possible, perhaps if my previous food arrangement fell through for whatever reason. And we might both feel desperate in this way! Codependency is two-way coercion? Hmmm.

Even if I am trying to coerce you, you might also access a mental stance from which you do feel free to accept my deal or do something else. Although if you’re wise you’d be able to recognize that I’m engaging in a coercive strategy, if I am. I experienced this once when I was ready to head home from Burning Man, but I was supposed to drive a friend home too who was camped somewhere else, and her camp lead was basically hold her stuff hostage saying she could only get it back if she helped pack up the camp for hours. I was effectively coerced by this guy into helping pack up the camp, but having recognized the situation (it helped that he was clear both that he was coercing us and that he’d prefer not to but other people had bailed on him and he didn’t want to be in the desert for another week packing up alone). In any case, once I recognized everything, I concluded that yeah, given my options, I preferred to stay, and to help (rather than just wait) and bring my friend home. And then I felt no resistance as I helped pack the camp up.

Abundance & win-wins

So as I said above, I broadly think that an overall attitude of attempting to find win-wins (vs attempting to control others’ behavior using whatever hooks of scarcity you can find) is possible even in the context of substantial scarcity, as long as you’re not literally competing for food to live on—the primary actually rivalrous resource is usable energy, whether fuel or food. Most everything else is somewhat less rivalrous: we can share it or use it together in a way that adds up to more than 2 halves. But you can’t spend energy twice—the reworked aphorism “feed two birds with one scone” is missing the point.

But even with energy, it’s worth considering whether you might be able to team up and find or create or safekeep more food. After all—conflict is costly and sometimes even dangerous. Arguably, collaborating in a situation would raise the stakes for trusting that the other person isn’t going to screw us over… but if we come to really need our teamwork, then we might be able to trust that because screwing the other person over short-term would mean screwing oneself over long-term too.

One of my big open questions at the moment is whether it requires substantial amounts of abundance in order to learn a non-coercive stance in the first place. Arguably if you have to keep working shitty jobs to eat then it’s hard to mentally step out of that world. But a counterexample might be Victor Frankl, who talks in Man’s Search For Meaning about how he and others accessed a stance of fundamental freedom while in the intense coercion of concentration camps. On the flip side, consider a slave owner, who has a bunch of abundance but the abundance is conditional on continuing to coerce the slaves. Such a person would have a whole different kind of difficulty changing stance.

It seems to me that historically, most people haven’t had a lot of deals available, both due to technological constraints (most people had to farm to eat, and it was perhaps harder to just go pick a new career) and due to cultural constraints (people taking for granted that their lives would go a particular way, and not being able to envision breaking from that mold).

Maybe material abundance is the wrong place to look? As far as I can tell, most coercion happens not due to overwhelming physical circumstances, but by emotional manipulation of self and others, whether that’s via guilt-tripping or threatening someone’s status or sense of belonging in a group, or insinuating that someone is an idiot if they don’t agree with you. And these structures are used to constrain behaviors in SO many ways. Any notion of not being able to do something because it would be “rude” or “bad” or “wrong” or “gauche” or “sinful” or “not how we do things here” is probably this, if it’s disconnected from the actual inherent consequences of doing so. Coercion happens because one’s awareness collapses on a sense of not-okayness.

And if someone’s in touch with fundamental freedom—being able to accept whatever consequences they want—then there’s a sense in which they can only ever be utterly dominated or negotiated with. There’s no way to force them to do something.

Lots is changing here, as the internet makes it easier to learn new skills, easier to start a business, and easier to find new options of all kinds—jobs, partners, friends, communities, and more. Part of the whole notion of my collaborative self-energizing meta-team vision is that it would be a whole economy of people working in a win-win sort of way, which would ultimately out-compete coercive economies due to being way less wasteful and way more creative.

Want to get clearer on what you want from your life and strategize on potential win-wins, internally and interpersonally? Join us online at the Goal-Crafting Intensive on Dec 18 or in January for personal guidance and structured coworking towards being more intentional with your life.

I liked that there was room to explore the more emotional components to work and goal setting, as well as the practical pieces for translating values into action.

— Tara, workshop participant
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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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