Cooperation, concession, or coercion: considerations in the expectation of compliance

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №12 - 2020

Author: Louis G. Foltz, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology, Warner Pacific University, USA

As a six-year-old, when told to wash my hands before dinner I would often enter the bathroom, stand over the sink, turn on the water, wait for a minute or two, sprinkle a little water on the towel, and congratulate myself upon clandestine defiance of immediate authority. Also at that same age, as an upstanding member of the Lincoln Elementary "Bluebird" reading group, I was extremely cautious in my reading aloud as I wanted so desperately to gain a loving smile from the beautiful Miss Reichenberg, my first grade teacher.

On those frequent occasions when I was discovered by my mother in the act of ablutionary deception, I would be exiled for the evening to my bedroom, suffering the dreadful fate of micro-starvation by missing my dinner. I was, however, sufficiently calculating in my dirty-handed attempts to only take the risk when such dinner items as liver, broccoli, or asparagus were being served; thereby merely opening the potential for the exchange of negative reinforcements - eat liver or starve. And I always extravagantly washed my hands on the nights when we ate spaghetti.

If my word pronunciation were to stumble during my reading of Fun with Dick and Jane during Bluebird Group time, Miss Reichenberg would still give me a loving smile." But I would misinterpret her gesture as an expression of pity rather than the affirmation of my human value - which it was.

The term: "compliance" has emerged from its routine, customary applications in denoting our essential local, regional, and national legal mandates, economic obligations and institutional contracts to presently shout a dire plea to a vulnerable world-wide population for defense against the global pandemic caused by the deadly coronavirus. "Compliance" with mandates for handwashing and isolation are now critical activities for slowing down the inevitable spread of the disease; thereby assisting hospitals in sustaining their capacity to treat the severely afflicted. Epidemiologists tell us that compliance with virus precautions is not a matter of "wanting to", but rather of "having to".

In deliberation over existing and potential expectations for "compliance", two perspectives must be simultaneously evaluated: the reasons and mechanisms behind the directive and the reasoning of those who are expected to comply." The social and moral value of the stringency embedded in the mandate must be harmonized with the opportunities and restrictions placed upon the subjects, as well as the latitude and consequences of non-compliance. As an example: from a child"s compliance in washing hands before dinner to washing hands to curb epidemic, from the short-term consequence of isolation in the bedroom as punishment to long-term isolation at home as prevention, the psychological considerations involved in the analysis of compliance remain very similar.

An initial observation of the two perspectives involved in "compliance" can easily be seen in an authoritative, but hardly technical, source - The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language.


1. The action or fact of complying with a wish or command.

2. The property of a material undergoing elastic deformation or (of a gas) change in volume when subjected to an applied force. It is equal to the reciprocal of stiffness.

These common definitions foreground the difference in starting points for consideration of the ramifications in generating an agreement or demand for compliance. The first definition focuses emphasis upon those who are acting in response to an urging for compliance." Statistically, those people and their behavior may be said to form the dependent variable of the social experiment (e.g. willingly or unwillingly - "washing your hands"). The second definition may be seen to focus upon the design of the agreement. In research terminology, their decisions may be seen to structure the independent variable. (How to move someone to wash their hands. What consequences will they envision to encounter if they do not? How is subversion of the mandate prevented?) Since formal and informal instructions for compliance begin with consideration of the need for compliance and construction of the resultant design, we first address Oxford"s second definition.

This second definition has common general understanding in the physical sciences and statistical research where "elastic deformation" is known to be the result of the successful application of "force" upon a "material". Keeping the challenge as simple as possible (and usually conceded to be defined too simply), reductionistic philosophy is applied to designs for affecting compliance with an assumption of maximum population homogeneity of the qualities comprising the material to be made "compliant"." (Every portion of the same element is the same). Physical elements and materials cannot vary from one occasion to another under identical circumstances (controlled variables) in their level of "reciprocal stiffness". Water is "H2O": a liquid between 0oC. and 100oC. at 72 mm sea level pressure.

But people are not a passive substance." Influences of culture, cognitive maturity, and the influence of family upon unique personalities are often accepted to be beyond consideration in the design of mandates affecting larger groups of people which comprise varying, and often conflicting, worldviews and moral values.

These factors (variables) are, however, emphasized in creating compliance agreements (mandates) for individual clients in the practice of psychotherapy, for family systems therapy, and for some very small businesses or possibly village ordinances. But the expansion of the subject population to include alternative worldviews removes consideration of values not held in common. The larger the number of cultural orientations, the more the compliance design becomes impersonal, including universal behavioral expectations regardless of the individual"s disposition toward the mandate. The larger the group, the less unique consideration. A "society" is not a single "culture". An admittedly false assumption of homogeneity is applied. A subject"s desire to comply becomes less of an influence upon the mechanisms for enforcement. Consequences for non-compliance become more literal and less an appeal to individual conscience.

The stability of the ordinance for compliance may take precedence over the individual or collective disposition of the subjects." At the family level, the classroom level, the organizational level, as well as at the oblast or national level, the stability of the commands for compliance and the prescriptions for reward and punishment are sustained by the organizational structure. The overseeing group in a home or workshop may negotiate compliance by the system of an Aristotelian democracy - popular vote." A larager group, such as an oblast or nation, may sustain legal compliance through a representative republican government. Authoritarian regimes dictate compliance by fiat." Some homes and businesses have a family monarchy which autonomously creates compliance structures, viewing it culturally appropriate to do so.

Obviously, all success in compliance is measured in the quality and quantity of solicited overt behavior. And the simplest (and quite inadequate), commonly used psychological model for "shaping" behavior is to be found in Operant Conditioning - its primary research beginning three quarters of a century ago with B.F. Skinner (1953). Quite outdated and lacking in any consideration of the potential for human free will, this paradigm still finds itself in common use when compliance is mandated rather than negotiated through dialogue with the persons and groups needing to comply. Recognition of these categories in constructing and evaluating compliance procedures for individuals - or assumed homogeneous groups -is of value, not because of the paradigm"s accuracy but due to its ubiquity:

"        Reinforcement" Sustain behavior." (E.g.: Washing your hands.)

o      Positive: Add a reward. (E.g.: Compliment on clean hands. Provide dessert).

o      Negative: Take away an obnoxious presence.

"       Escape: Cease the on-going annoyance. (E.g.: Stop nagging once hands are clean)

"       Active Avoidance: Add negative consequences. (E.g.: You won"t be sent to your room if you properly wash your hands).

"        Punishment: Decrease behavior. (E.g.: Assembling in large gatherings during the pandemic).

o      Positive Punishment Add Unwanted condition (E.g. Fines for large gatherings).

o      Negative Punishment Remove Wanted Condition (E.g. Large gatherings cause the closing of stores).

In matching compliance agreements, "shaping protocols", to the categories of Skinnerian Behaviorism, it is important to remember that the philosophy recognizes the effected individuals and organizations (referred to as "organisms") as expressing potential qualities of what Oxford had termed "reciprocal stiffness" - a degree of potential pliability which is encountered in the procedures and consequences of compliance.

But the human condition is seen by many to not be reducible to a mathematical formula. These qualities of "organism" pliability return us to the first, and more human, definition for "compliance" found in The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language: 1. THE ACTION OR FACT OF COMPLYING WITH A WISH OR COMMAND." Deutsch and Gerard (1955) were the first to apply the term "informational influence" to the study of compliance." They refer to the desire for the individual to be in at least behavioral (if not ethical) conformity with the group to which they identify. The power of interpersonal, neurophysiological attachment first studied by Bolby (1969) provides positive incentive to comply with commands which elicit cooperation from the group in which the individual finds personal identity (a concept which varies with culture)." And, conversely, bonding to the identified group compels defiance when the group does so collectively. The Asch experiments (1951) studying group persuasion toward individual compliance with statements known to be incorrect are among the most famous examples of the power of informational influence." Identity acceptance is a strong positive reinforcement and is continuously employed in television and radio commercials - media appeals for the purchase of merchandise and for participation in socially-desired behavior.

The individual"s level of cognitive development has substantial influence in understanding instructions given as well as comprehending the surrounding circumstances involved with compliance. Cognitive sophistication determines the interpretation of the feedback received from the behavior exhibited." With regard to behavioristic designs for group compliance, the intensity of necessity for the compliance and what the subjects are able to comprehend determines the commands for individual and group frequently remaining there for a lifetime.

"        Sensori-motor conceptualization. Birth onward

o       Thought is expressed in sequential physical movement.

o       Prior to the mastering of language, thought is solely physical action.

o       Adults erode to this level under very extreme stress and lose the ability to verbally articulate; often resorting to physical violence.

o       Mob behavior and physical defiance which cannot be assuaged with reason indicate individual or group sensori-motor thought.

"        Pre-operational (semiotic) conceptualization. Age 2½ onward.

o       Sense of sufficient mastery of language to be understood.

o       Anything that can be said can be real. E.g.: fairy tales, Father Christmas.

o       The world is magical. External physical laws are not as much "real" as the world expressed by those holding authority and power.

o       Compliance is fueled by personal love or personal threat. (At six years old I would strive to gain my teacher"s smile.)

o       "Trust" in the "other" - group or individual - is a function of the assumed efficacy of the person or group expecting compliance.

o       Adults who are reduced to, or sustaining, pre-operational thinking are susceptible to believing in the illogical messages of people in power.

o       Reasoning about emotionally-loaded situations is not logical. For example: the alcoholic who does not comply and stop drinking states that he or she can stop any time they wish. They are not lying." They actually, magically, believe it.

Compliance commands or expectations addressed to individuals or groups embedded in sensori-motor or pre-operational thinking cannot appeal to sensibility. It is not there. Appealing to the rioting crowd or appealing to the emotionally upset alcoholic must be a directive clearly demonstrating behavioral physical consequences." Otherwise, the directive will not be recognized, much less obeyed.

"        Concrete operational conceptualization." Late childhood onward.

o       The external world is consistent. The internal world and personal or group logic are now held to consistent reason and frequent suspicion.

o       A balance of reciprocity is understood. The world can be analyzed from the viewpoint of another individual or the worldview of another group.

o       The world remains material and linear. The strength and value of metaphor is not available to making decisions. The here-and-now, deliberated in a temporal sequence, makes sense.

o       Compliance may appeal to reason for cooperation more than to gain reluctant coercion. Consequences need not be material but can be a realization of the moral good. But the behaviors must remain specifically articulated. Generalized instructions ("do the right thing") cannot result in specific behavioral compliance.

The difference between pre-operational and concrete operational measures for effective compliance is easily seen through comparing the types of classroom rules which elicit compliance in the first years of primary school with those which are successful in secondary school. The former set calls for continually soliciting explicit physical movement." The latter expects reasonable, understood, planned behaviors.

Concrete operational thought is the most commonplace level of logic among mature adults, as higher levels are rarely encountered in adult interactions and, therefore, rarely exercised. Commercialization of the media to solicit a maximum audience employs this level of literal, sequential logic in the presentation of a majority of its offerings. In parallel, a caution must be given to business organizations in their deliberation over policy and procedures as it is common for the structure and values of the company to entrench at this level of narrowly-defined overt procedures and situational ethics.

Corporations and other organizations encountering extreme financial misfortune are susceptible to "downshifting" in the same way as are individuals; finding collective emotional distress to cause the restricting of policy decisions to pre-operational, magical thinking." Corporate reason evaporates." Expectations for compliance are magically seen as unreasonable. Fairytales of justification for illegal behavior are tempting, and sometimes put into practice. Appearances of stability are conserved while the corporate behavior erodes in its ethic." Like the alcoholic, the corporation which tells itself that its intentions remain noble and that it can stop clandestine non-compliance at will is not lying. It is practicing collective magical truth. The established legal consequences (the positive or negative behaviorist punishment) for such desperate company behavior must be constructed in a way to be understood at this lower level of collective mentality. Using Skinner"s model consequences could include "Positive punishment" - fines and/or imprisonment and also "Negative punishment" - losing the business license.

"        Formal operational thought." Potentially adolescence onward.

o       The world is comprised of more than a sequence of linear instances.

o       Conceptual systems are seen to be more "real" than physical examples.

o       Concepts can be mentally manipulated without physical trials.

o       Multiple conceptual systems can be considered simultaneously rather than in linear sequence.

o       Deep patterns of behavior can be identified.

o       "If-Then" hypothesizing directs the value of compliance.

o       Rules are generalized to systems of ethics rather than addressing specific behaviors.

The constitution of a governing body, such as the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, is written at the formal operational level so that the document encompasses a single metaphor of democracy which can be applied by the courts to specific instances of "concrete operational" compliance.

Dealing with specific cases, requests for compliance which are exhortations, such as to "do the right thing in these categories of situations," are meant to encompass a wide variety of specific, physical behaviors." They also appeal to an orientation toward a cooperative ethic which would self-identify specific opportunities for compliance.

But since the sustaining of formal operational thought is universally rare - and simply not possible for many people - public appeals during the present pandemic which exhort: "Stay safe" or "Mind your distance" are of little value as compared to the concrete operational: "Wash your hands several times a day" or: "Walk two meters apart". This explicit behavior is seen to be acts of reasonable, specific compliance in the eyes of the concrete operational adult majority." And preoperational thinkers, comprised by individuals of all ages, will comply due to the voice of authoritative power through consideration of the consequences of non-compliance.

In the anthropological investigation of individual and small group compliance within the larger society, it is of value to make a definitional distinction between a "culture" and a "society"." A useful overgeneralization can be formed from the work of Levi-Strauss and then later work by Geertz to address a "culture" as being composed of individuals who share an almost-common worldview and its resultant morality; sustained by repeated use of a linguistic structure and specific perspective on personal identity. If one is noncompliant to a cultural norm, the psychologically healthy individual develops an overt or covert personal sense of shame. Cultural non-compliance affects identity. But for some cultures, social non-compliance may not elicit any shame at all. Non-compliance in a society is not necessarily immoral. (An example might be the eating of specific animals or parts of an animal forbidden by a particular cultural understanding and cultural edict may not be illegal behavior in a multi-cultural society.)" Non-compliance in a culture is immoral to that group of people. "Informational influence" supersedes law.

A "society" can be defined for this monograph as a geographic or an ideological region involving the social interactions within and between more than one culture and their corresponding worldviews." The expectations for compliance within a society may or may not be considered moral by members of the included cultures." Therefore, the compliance essential to sustain a society is based upon expectation for explicit behavior and not upon internal sense of right or wrong. The constant maintenance of a specific and understood legal structure (commonly applying the behavioristic paradigm) is critical for the sustaining of a society. The many recent international instances of governmental social collapse demonstrate the cohesion of cultural conformity over and against reductionistic consequences for defying social compliance.

One additional element which must be considered in the psychology of compliance is the variety of cultural teaching regarding individual identity." Many Asian cultures work to instill the notion of personal identity as being found first in one"s location within the family and then within the culture." An analogy might be in comparing the individual to a finger on one hand where the whole of an individual"s identity is the entire functioning body." Eastern naming order, with the family name coming first, is an indicator of this more corporate understanding of identity." The Russian patronymic name gives a less intense, but still strong example of the placement of the individual within the physical and emotional welfare of the consanguineous family"s single identity.

As opposed to the effortful instruction in singular individuality which is a hallmark in western cultures, the positive or negative consequences of compliance in Asia involve the physical and emotional welfare of the extended family group." Formal and informal mandates for compliance must consistently keep in mind who (singularly and collectively) is complying." Who (singularly and collectively) is addressed by the consequences? Is the family honored or shamed by actions of compliance (non-compliance)?

- - -

This introduction presents but a few of the interwoven factors involved in considering the psychology of compliance. An immediately relevant example of this network of expectations can be seen in the educational system of all nations." The classroom, as well as in the case of the local and national government, functions as a multi-cultural society." The Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington D.C. cites over one hundred ethnic groups living in the country." The school and university, as is also the case with business and public service organizations, must comply with a network of regulations involving partner institutions and governmental oversight organizations to ensure the quality of measured performance expected at each level.

In classrooms comprised of a unique, small, and identifiable set of cultural worldviews, the smaller number of students might be given a greater opportunity to provide input toward the shaping of interactions toward an established set of universal compliance standards, recognizing the small set of perspectives which are brought into the small setting. But with increasing size, the opportunity for student influence on procedures logistically diminishes. At the level of the multi-classroom, multi-program school or university, procedures for meeting compliance standards increasingly diminish the opportunity to employ the first of Oxford"s definitions and must resort to the cold manipulations defined by the second.

Universal compliance with institutional and government expectations is vital to the longevity of not only institutions of education, but those of health, commerce and industry as well." The behavioral models used by the nation must be enforced and perpetually reviewed to maintain the wellbeing of the society and must be reasonable, having positive and negative consequences clearly presented." But it cannot be assumed that all citizens will recognize or appreciate the reasoning for the statutes. Yet why individuals do not or cannot understand, or why they disagree, must be rigorously investigated and appreciated as well.

The year 2020 begins with both a "bang and a whimper". But to contradict T.S. Eliot, the world is not ending. This is an extremely rare occasion where nations with adversarial political viewpoints find themselves unifying over critical steps to minimize the human toll from the worst pandemic in one hundred years." The common advisory is not philosophical." It is viral. And the need for world-wide compliance with life-saving behavior is universally demanded.

Go wash your hands.

Stay inside.


1. Asch SE. (1951) "Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments". In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburg, PA: Carnegie Press.

2. Bowlby J (1999) [1969]. "Attachment". Attachment and Loss (vol. 1) (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

3. Eliot, T.S.(1925) "The Hallow Men". Poems: 1909"1925

4. Geertz, C. (2017) The interpretation of cultures 3rd. ed. Hachette Book Group

5. Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966), The Savage Mind." University of Chicago Press

6. Piaget, J. (2007) The Psychology of Intelligence. Routledge

7. Skinner, B.F. (1953) Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №12 - 2020

About journal
About KAFU

   © 2022 - KAFU Academic Journal