Persuasion vs. Coercion at the Holiday Table

Pro tips on communication strategies from Frank and Robert Oppenheimer.

Frank Oppenheimer and the author, K.C. Cole.

Frank Oppenheimer and the author, K.C. Cole.

Courtesy © Exploratorium.

Ah, the holidays: Harder to swallow even than a regifted fruitcake is the stubborn inability of our loved ones to see our (obviously correct) points of view on almost everything. Vegans dine with hard-core carnivores; drinkers and smokers sit across the table from abstainers; NRA members trade niceties with advocates of gun control; lovers of shiny new toys trade gifts with serious recyclers; Obama voters gloat (or try to hold their tongues) among the Romneyites. 

You’d think it would be a great time to try to convince one another of the merits of our different points of view. But what we think is persuasion is more often just poorly disguised coercion.

And the difference is crucial: Persuasion requires understanding. Coercion requires only power. We usually equate coercion with obvious force, but sometimes it’s far more subtle. If you want people to stop smoking, for example, you don’t need to make it illegal; you can simply make smoking expensive (raise taxes) or offer bribes (lower health insurance premiums). Both are still coercive in that the power to give or take away resides entirely in the hands of the “coercer.”

Persuasion is fundamentally different because it relies on understanding what smoking does to the human body. Someone who’s persuaded of its dangers has an incentive to stop that’s entirely independent of anyone else’s actions.

So if your sister gets you to spend more than you’d like on gifts by making you feel cheap or guilty if you don’t, that’s a form of coercion. It goes both ways, of course. Get her to spend less by making her feel materialistic (or conversely reward her with affection for donating to the food bank), and you haven’t convinced her of anything. You’ve only gotten your way—for now.

It’s a distinction I think about often in teaching. If I get students do things a certain way for fear of getting an F or hopes of getting an A, it means I’ve influenced their behavior for the duration of the class. If I’ve managed to persuade them that my method has merit, I’ve likely made converts for life.

I first heard about this distinction from a fellow who spent most of his life trying to show that coercion was a lousy way to stop anyone from doing anything. He was the physicist Frank Oppenheimer, and he had quite a falling out with his famous older brother, Robert, over this very issue. Robert, of course, was the father of the atomic bomb. Frank helped, too; he was a key player in creating enough enriched uranium to build the Hiroshima bomb and deputy safety inspector at the Trinity site where the first bomb exploded. The brothers witnessed the test together, face down in the dirt for the initial explosion, then watching the unearthly bright purple cloud that hovered long after the blast, listening to the echoing thunder.

Robert was a national hero, an intimate of generals and Cabinet members. After the war, he used the pulpit of physics and his considerable charm and intelligence to try to stop nuclear proliferation in its infancy. One could say the testimony to his failure is the thousands of nuclear weapons around the world today on hair-trigger alert, each vastly more powerful than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many good people, many of them co-creators of the bomb, devoted substantial parts of their lives to tame the threat. They mostly failed.

It’s impossible to say whether another approach would have worked, but Frank thought his brother’s efforts fell short at least in part because they stayed within a circle of people much like himself: clever, well-educated, technically proficient. The general public, it went almost without saying, had neither the smarts nor the knowledge to engage in the issue. Robert’s attitude, Frank thought, boiled down essentially to saying: We physicists have the knowledge and the power. We’ll take care of things for you.

Frank didn’t buy that a bit. You didn’t need to be a physicist to understand the basics. “The ability to solve a differential equation was only an infinitesimal advance over the ability to read and write,” he argued. But “no one was explaining anything,” he complained.

Except for people like Frank, who were talking to everyone they could, trying to persuade them that nuclear weapons required a new kind of thinking. The weapons were not just ordinary bombs made bigger; they were something new under the sun, 1,000 times more powerful than ordinary bombs. He compared the difference to inviting four people to dinner at your house and getting 4,000. Or reducing your salary from $20,000 a year to $20.

The brothers couldn’t have disagreed more on how to approach the problem. The most haunting lines I unearthed while writing a biography of Frank appear in a letter to his best friend and Los Alamos colleague, physicist Robert Wilson. “I saw my bro in Chicago,” Frank wrote. “In brotherly love, I told him I was still confident that some day he would do something that I was proud of …”

While Robert (perhaps understandably) brushed off his little brother, Frank was deadly serious. The only way to stop nuclear insanity was to convince people it was insanity; to make them understand why it was insanity. The real danger of coercion, Frank thought, is it doesn’t value understanding.

It may be difficult to see that simply dismissing groups of people as not worth taking seriously is a form of coercion. It’s intellectual overpowering: “Trust us; you wouldn’t understand anyway.” Whatever we call it, the chance for persuasion is lost.

It’s a chance that’s lost every time authorities (especially scientists) try to tell people how to eat, drive, spend money, raise their kids without explaining why—the evidence and reasoning, in other words, that persuaded them. Instead, it’s like a parent telling a child: “Because I said so!” Nothing lasting is passed on.

A young scientist who worked with Frank for years told me this was the most important lesson he learned from his mentor: If he found himself resorting to rewards or punishments to get his employees to do things, he knew he hadn’t been a very good boss.

Coercion becomes immoral, Frank thought, when it begins to permeate a society to the extent that understanding becomes undervalued. And he saw this happening everywhere.

It’s both trite and true to say that we live in dangerous, complex, times. Getting through them safely will require every good idea, every innovation, every approach to figuring things out, never giving up, no matter how daunting the task. “If we stop trying to understand things,” Frank liked to say, “we’ll all be sunk.”

And what better place to start than at holiday gatherings? Rather than gird ourselves for silent disagreement or endless loud arguments, why not try to gather evidence to support our cause? It isn’t easy these days when relatives who watch Fox News have a difference set of facts to work with than followers of MSNBC. But we’re going to have to try. A victory for Obama didn’t change the minds of those who went for Romney—nearly half the voting population.

People at exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Calif.

People at exhibits at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, Calif.

Courtesy Exploratorium.

Ultimately, Frank went on to build what he called a “museum of awareness” in San Francisco, a museum, really, of persuasion. He called it an Exploratorium so it wouldn’t sound like “museum,” where experts tell visitors what they should know; it was (and is) more like a playground packed with sophisticated scientific toys meant to be poked, prodded, pushed, pulled, listen to, yelled at, spun around, climbed on, fiddled with, sung to, clapped at, watched with wonder. It’s a place for people to experience what it feels like to really discover something.  

One of Frank’s favorite stories was about the woman who’d spent the day there, then went home and wired a lamp. There is nothing in the Exploratorium that tells you how to wire a lamp. The woman had merely gotten a taste of that great feeling that comes from figuring it out for yourself. Which is ultimately what persuasion is about.

We’re persuaded when we feel we’ve understood something well enough to make up our own minds. And that makes all of us smarter, better people, no matter what side of the issues (or the table) we’re on.