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Using Threats


Explanations > Motivation > Using Threats

Description | Discussion | So what?



Threat is used a basic transaction: Do as I say or you will suffer, receiving pain of some sort that you will not be able to prevent.

Threats generally work better to stop people doing things that to make them do something.

Threats may be used to trigger a deeper fear by the style in which they are given, for example by an angry person, or in the impact on the person of the threatened consequences.

Subtle threats are surprisingly common and can be effective as they are not always detected as such, even by the subject. Physical threats are a lot more overt and far less common in everyday situations.


Threats are a primitive method of motivation. You can see it in the way animals and young children interact with one another.

Threats work better for dissuasion as there is often a wide difference in performance between a person who is complying in action due to threat rather than acting because they are motivated for strong internal reasons.

Threats can be weak or strong, causing slight anxiety or deep dread. The common force is that they create fear, which leads to compliance.

Threats can also trigger a fight-or-flight reaction which can lead to an undesirable response, which is one reason threats are a poor method of motivation.

Threat is related to relative power and the greater the power of the threatener, the greater the potential threat. It is in the interest of the threatener to maximize the perceived power differential. Even weak people who powerless feel have several types of power at their disposal, such as requesting duties of care and protection from social leaders.

Threats are socially undesirable and in some ways we want threats not to work. It is clearly a bad thing to do must therefore be used by bad people. And bad people do not deserve to get what they want.

Delayed reactance

Jonathan Freedman showed some toys, including a highly desirable robot, to boys between 7 and 10, then excused himself for five minutes, allowing them to play with any toy but the robot. Some boys were threatened ('If you play with the robot, I'll be very angry') whilst others were treated more gently ('It is wrong to play with the robot'). Both approaches were largely effective. Six weeks later, however, the same boys were allowed to play with any toy. Now 77% of the threatened boys played with the robot as compared to 33% of those who were not threatened.

What does this mean? Threat sets up a stronger internal reaction that persists longer. The threatened boys were still smarting and the robot had simply become more desirable.

So what?

Be very careful with threats as they can easily go wrong, for example as people seek to sustain their sense of control by rebelling in some way. Threats may also lead to social criticism as others see your acts and judge you as a bad person for doing so.

If you want something to be desirable in the future, you may consider make stronger threats in the short term to prevent access.

See also

Authority principle, Scarcity principle

Conditioning, Interrogation, Extrinsic Motivation


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