Influence Mechanisms: A Framework for Integrated Operations
By Adam Reitz
Introduction: The Ontology of Influence – Discouraging vs. Encouraging
Traditionally most people think of using the stick of coercion when dealing with a foe and the carrot of persuasion with an ally, but we should amend our influence planning to include the possibility of applying both, as required, in a goal-centric model. Friend or Foe? As a target it makes little difference in designing the dialog of influence if we recognize that either would decide on an action only after weighing the pros and cons. Instead, distinguishing between whether you are trying to discourage an actor’s potential behavior or you are trying to encourage their current behavior offers planners more utility than focusing on your relationship with them [see Figure 1].
In his seminal work, “Arms and Influence,” Thomas Schelling offers us a solid foundation for understanding influence through the threat and/or application of force (coercion). Under his conceptualization of coercion, compellence involves threatening or applying force in order to get an actor to do something while deterrence threatens force to keep an actor from doing something.[i] These distinctions provide a framework from which we can better understand influence in a more complete state through the addition of contrarian “carrot” concepts to his “stick” offerings. The notion of coercion lends itself to naming its less bellicose counterpart: persuasion – instead of offering force, one offers rewards. We can name and define assurance and inducement as the more pleasant counterparts to deterrence and compellence, respectively. Most would prefer to induce a friend rather than compel them to take an action. Next, if threatening another with punishment to keep them “from” deciding to take a particular action is deterrence, then we can think of its friendlier counterpart as assurance (e.g., assuring an ally of the benefits of a mutual defense treaty to discourage them from leaving it). Both deterrence and assurance attempt to influence an actor from an action, with the only distinction being the means of the motivation: stick or carrot.
The addition of persuasion and its subsets neatly complements Schelling’s conceptualization of coercion to provide us with an overarching concept for influence: the vertical axis accounts for whether the influencer is trying to discourage an actor from an action or attempting to encourage them to take an action, whereas the horizontal distinguishes between carrots (persuasion) or sticks (coercion), irrespective of a friend or foe designation. Unfortunately, this still can leave any would-be influence planner with an unnecessarily false mental model – that one can only apply sticks to adversaries and carrots to friends.
Articulating Pros & Cons
The relative irrelevance of friend or foe as an influence target begins to make itself apparent when we recognize that either would be more likely to decide to take (or not take) an action if they have determined their pros of doing so outweigh the cons. While this seems simple enough in theory, in practice it becomes more complicated and less useful. In contemplating and planning influence operations, common words are applied absent professional definitions or even a common understanding amongst practitioners.
For example, the tendency to confuse pros with just benefits and cons with only costs may appear at first as benign semantics [see Figure 2], but sustained application proves this to be a malignant conflation of concepts and ignores the critical aspect of restraint.[ii] Sticks and carrots, pros and cons, costs and benefits – these all describe parts of the mechanisms of influence but are incomplete and still require clearly articulated definitions.
To develop a more complete and useful understanding of “pros” and “cons,” we must further break them down: pros (from the target’s perspective) are the anticipated “benefits of the action,” juxtaposed against their anticipated “costs of restraint”; the cons of taking the same action result from holding the anticipated “costs of the action” in tension with the anticipated “benefits of restraint” [see Figure 3].
Cost/Benefit Analysis (CBA) – The Scales Metaphor
“Influence mechanisms” consist of specific categories of actions applied to a cognitive goal (i.e., the target’s decision to take or not take a specific action). Focusing on the influence goals first, the visualization of a “scales” metaphor[iii] builds and improves upon the DO JOC’s lever/fulcrum visualization. The key assumption in designing influence operations is that a target will take a specific action if the pros outweigh the cons, putting any would-be influencer in a position of trying to infer how to add “weight” to one scale while removing it from the other.
Wary of implying a false sense of scientific accuracy, let’s refer to this part of the mechanism as the Cost/Benefit Analysis (CBA) model. The contents of all four quadrants are inferred[iv], not known, and the prospect of discerning a common denominator metric across a cornucopia of cost/benefit concepts in the mind of someone else seems exhausting and ultimately disingenuous. However, analysis of each quadrant – by itself – and held in tension against the others, provides the foundation for team discourse – a basis from which to argue if the pros outweigh the cons and assert a claim at how confident you are with the conclusion.
The Cost/Benefit Analysis (CBA) model:
- Pros consist of the target’s perceived Benefits of taking the Action (BoA) compared and contrasted with their perception of the Costs of Restraining (CoR) from taking that action.
- Cons consist of the target’s perceived Cost of taking the Action (CoA) compared and contrasted with their perception of the Benefits of Restraining from the action (BoR).
- If Pros (P = BoA + CoR) are greater than Cons (C = CoA + BoR) then Action.
- If Cons (C = CoA + BoR) are greater than Pros (P = BoA + CoR) then Restraint.
When trying to discern what a target considers a cost or benefit of an action or restraint, it is critical to consider the concepts of anticipation and acceptability. Threatening to impose a cost of action which a target has anticipated and deemed acceptable will not deter. Nor will providing a benefit of an action induce an actor to take an action if it has already been considered and deemed insufficient. Threatening or rewarding unanticipated outcomes within the CBA requires further assumptions but could prove critical in tipping the scales towards your desired behavior. The more thoroughly you explore the CBA quadrants, the more complete and stronger your resulting argument is for applying specific mechanisms, and the less likely you are to miscalculate by ignoring considerations the target values in each CBA quadrant.
Discouraging Mechanisms vs. Encouraging Mechanisms
Influence action mechanisms take two forms, depending on whether the goal of the influencer is to discourage a target actor from taking an action (deterrence & assurance) or encourage them to take an action (compellence & inducement).
There are four action Influence Mechanisms which can be applied to encourage or discourage an action:
- Add (+) Benefits J (Provide something desired to the target: e.g., give Bag of Gold; aka, Carrot).
- Subtract (-) Benefits J (Remove something desired by the target: e.g., block the benefits of an attack with a Shield).
- Add (+) Costs L (Impose something undesired by the target: e.g., use a Sword; aka; Stick).
- Subtract (-) Costs L (Remove something undesired by the target: e.g., remove the Thorn from the lion’s paw; from someone’s side).
The application of B.H. Skinner’s operant conditioning concepts of positive vs. negative (influencer adds vs. removes) and reinforcement vs. punishment (desired by target vs. undesired)[v] provides planners with immense utility in purposefully distinguishing between the CBA quadrants and how to affect them. Gaining an appreciation for the distinctions of concepts like positive punishment (i.e., adding to affect a punishment; the sword) and negative reinforcement (i.e., subtracting to affect a reward; the thorn) provides influence planners subjectively chosen but objectively measurable criteria for determining which influence mechanism applies to which CBA quadrant.
Consider the ongoing phenomenon of ransomware –it is easy enough to regard the desired results of paying the stated ransom as a benefit of that action (BoA). Further reflection through the lens of Skinner’s operant conditioning concepts, however, reveals that the cost of restraining (CoR) from paying the ransom (e.g., the cost of permanent loss of access to data) by itself outweighs a potential cost of the action (CoA) (e.g., paying could incentivize future ransomware attacks, actual financial cost, etc.). Paying the ransom does not add a new benefit (i.e.: positive reinforcement) to the victims – it reduces the unacceptable cost (negative reinforcement) of not paying the ransom. The distinction is slippery, but critical; applying the concepts of adding or removing rewards and punishments to each of the CBA quadrants, and to all four of the influence mechanisms, provides planners with much needed cognitive traction when designing influence operations.
Each Influence Mechanism applies to both Encouraging and Discouraging influence operations, but manifests itself as a polar opposite when aligned to the CBA model:
Discouraging (Deterrence & Assurance) – Decrease Pros & Increase Cons of taking the action:
- Pros: (from the target’s perspective of choosing to take the action undesired by the Influencer):
- BoA: Influencer uses Shields to decrease the intended benefits of the target’s action.
- CoR: Influencer removes Thorns to decrease the costs of the actor restraining from the action.
- Cons: (from the target’s perspective of choosing to take the action undesired by the Influencer):
- CoA: Influencer uses Swords to increase costs to the target of taking the action.
- BoR: Influencer provides Bags of Gold to increase the actor’s benefits of restraining from the action.
Encouraging (Inducement & Compellence) – Increase Pros & Decrease Cons of taking the action:
- Pros: (from the target’s perspective of choosing to take the action desired by the Influencer):
- BoA: Influencer offers Bags of Gold to increase the benefits of taking the action.
- CoR: Influencer uses Swords to increase the costs of restraining from the action.
- Cons: (from the target’s perspective of choosing to take the action desired by the Influencer):
- CoA: Influencer removes Thorns to decrease the costs of the action.
- BoR: Influencer uses Shields to decrease the benefits of restraining from the action.
No city under siege would willingly haul a team of enemy commandos into their walled fortifications but this is exactly what the Greeks induced the Trojans to do. The invading Greeks held decent insight into the minds of their Trojan enemies when Odysseus proposed his audacious influence operation. Building an offering and leaving it to appease the goddess Athena to ensure a safe redeployment was to be expected, and what better way to show off the Trojan victory than to haul the Greek’s monument of defeat into their city?
The specific action the Greeks wanted to influence the Trojans to decide to take was for the Trojans to bring the horse into their walled city. The religious and public relations’ benefits of this action were considerable, while the potential costs were (assumingly) sailing away. As there was no threat or application of force, this would classify as a “persuasion” operation in which the Greeks induced the Trojans to take a specific action they were already inclined to do. To reinforce the perceived benefits, the Greeks conducted supporting tasks under the “bag of gold” mechanism. To make it perfectly clear that the giant horse was an offering, the Greeks placed a plaque on it saying as much. They also “abandoned” a soldier to sell the ruse in person to the Trojans.[vi] In reducing the potential costs to the Trojans of hauling the horse into their city, the Greeks burned their tents and encampments along the shores, giving evidence to the Trojans dearest hope that the long-lasting siege was truly over.
Whereas the Trojan horse story provides us with an example of inducing an adversary with a positive reward (bag of told), the Cuban missile crisis provides an example of inducing an adversary by removing a thorn. The average American citizen watching the news in October of 1962 may have easily thought that it was their government’s ability to impose costs on the USSR that ultimately deterred the deployment of additional intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and nuclear warheads to the island nation. The CBA model, however, provides additional clarity about the Soviet’s true motivation. The potential for the USA to impose nuclear or conventional costs was already anticipated and deemed acceptable. To understand why the Soviets were not deterred by potential costs of the action, we must first understand what
they considered the added benefits of posturing nuclear missiles so close to the U.S. East coast to be – which were none.
After the U.S. postured IRBMs in Turkey, the USSR found itself in a perceived “nuclear response time gap.” Less visceral than a missile or bomber gap, perhaps, but arguably more terrifying to the public.[vii] With no means of reliable missile defense to deter the USA from employing those missiles (e.g., no ability to decrease the U.S. benefit of action [shield]), the Soviets were left to look for other means of mitigation. It can be argued that the goal of posturing IRBMs in Cuba was to regain nuclear response time parity with the USA. If the USSR leadership had no time to respond to a salvo from Turkey, then neither would the Americans have time to respond to an attack from Cuba. Ultimately, it was the U.S. offer to remove that thorn from the Soviet side (combined with the ever present nuclear and conventional ability to increase costs) that tipped the scales. The U.S. government quietly agreed to remove the missiles from Turkey if the USSR stopped deploying missiles to, and removed the current ones from, Cuba. This can lead one to wonder if the USA conducted a successful crisis-action inducement operation or if the Soviets succeeded in conducting a deliberately planned compellence operation.
Pros & Cons of the CBA
It is essential to understand the value to organizational learning when developing the CBA and corresponding influence mechanisms vs. any misplaced scientific value in predicting. No matter how fully or well flesh-out a CBA model is, it is still merely an inductive argument for a “probable” outcome, not a certain one. This guaranteed lack of certainty, however, should not prevent its application. Focusing first on a common overarching goal (e.g., an actor is discouraged from or encouraged to an action), instead of a single means (e.g., the sword) provides influence planners with the potential to identify opportunities to integrate with capabilities outside of their organizational quiver by fostering a more holistic understanding of the target actor’s incentives and disincentives for a particular action.
In competition, crisis, or conflict, influence professionals require a profession-level understanding of how the concepts of deterrence, compellence, assurance, and inducement are distinct and how they are related. The distinctions of ‘friend of foe’ and ‘carrot or stick’ are inconsequential compared to the unifying requirement of weighing pros vs. cons. Whether trying to design an influence operation against another, or to prevent another from unduly influencing you, the more an organization explores the potential pros and cons from the point of view of a target actor, and tinkers with integrating applicable influence mechanisms, the better prepared it is to compete against an actor who has failed to do the same.
[i] Thomas Schelling, (1966) Arms and Influence, pgs. 69-70
[ii] Deterrence Operations, Joint Operating Concept (DO JOC), (2006), pgs. 20-21
[iii]Deterrence Operations, Joint Operating Concept, (2006), pg. 22
[iv] This builds on Schelling’s assertion, “To exploit a capacity for hurting and inflicting damage one needs to know what an adversary treasures and what scares him…,” by adding a capacity for “rewarding.” Thomas Schelling, (1966), Arms and Influence, pg. 3
[v] Saul McLeod, (2018) What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work? https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html.
[vii] Benjamin Schwarz, (2013, January/February) The Real Cuban Missile Crisis, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/01/the-real-cuban-missile-crisis/309190/