July 7, 2009

How effective are threats?

Sometime ago I asked this question: What research is there on how to lead people effectively? I did get some responses but I would like to get a lot more. In the meantime, I have begun to think there is not a lot of evidence on this. Still there is some. In 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot (Borzoi Books) by Richard Wiseman I read about research by Jonathan Freedman. It is old study published in 1965 (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Vol 1(2), 1965, 145-155.) and done with children, so not exactly in an organizational setting. Still, I think it implies something interesting for how to lead people. It examines the question what the effects of threading children is when you want to keep them from doing something. Here is a summary of the paper:
Long-term behavioral effects of cognitive dissonance.
To investigate whether or not the arousal of cognitive dissonance can produce long-term behavioral effects, children were told not to play with a very desirable toy under high or low threat, and were left alone with the toy. Those who did not play with it were given a 2nd opportunity to play with the toy several weeks later, with the original threat removed. The prediction was that those subjects who had resisted temptation under mild threat would be less likely to play with the toy in this 2nd session than would those who had resisted under severe threat. The results supported this prediction.
Richard Wiseman summarizes the conclusions as follows:
"Threat works well in the short term, but can actually prove counter-productive over longer periods of time. By pointing out all the terrible things that will happen if your child follows a course of action, you may be making that activity more attractive in their minds."
Comments and further references are welcome.


  1. Interesting.
    However, I would be very careful in extrapolating results from this study to organizational settings.

    In my experience as a coach, I see that my clients often incorporate negative reinforcement or downright punishment in some situations, and it seems to work - I do not remember the threat, in itself, to be part of the solution.


    PS: still reading your blog, however I am commenting less because my Mac is being repaired, Cassie's is in Italy so we both depend on my father-in-law machine...

  2. Hi Paolo,

    Thanks. Agree, this only provides some indication and I am looking for comparable research in an organizational setting.


    ps how is life in the US? (apart from computer problems)


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