We have ways of making you think

How easy is it to change peoples’ beliefs and attitudes?

It’s an important question given what we’re trying to achieve in Afghanistan, and given efforts at de-radicalisation of takfiri militants there and elsewhere.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, transforming beliefs turns out to be quite difficult to achieve. Once we’ve acquired them, typically through a process of social interaction, a whole battery of cognitive traits works to bolster prevailing beliefs and attitudes and protect us from the uncomfortable sensation brought on by new, discrepant information.

But all’s not lost. A famous example from the 1950s shows that attitude change is possible.

UN prisoners in Korea
UN prisoners under Communist escort in Korea

US prisoners of war taken by the Chinese in the Korean war were subjected to a systematic programme of self-analysis and criticism that had a pronounced effect on their attitudes. Their experiences at the hands of the Chinese inspired the Manchurian Candidate, a tall tale of brainwashing Americans to assassinate –  the real world effects were subtler but profound.

Henry Segal was part of the team that carried out psychiatric analysis of the prisoners on their release, and wrote up some of his findings in 1954 [requires subscription]. The Americans, he noted, were in a mess:

There was considerable confusion expressed as to who really started the Korean War. The majority believed that our forces had actually used germ warfare although most of the men felt “it was all right for us to do that in a war.” Many expressed antipathy toward the Chinese Communists, but at the same time praised them for the “fine job they have done in China.” Others stated that, “although Communism won’t work in America I think it’s a good thing for Asia.” […] None of the prisoners expressed any deep-seated hatred towards the Chinese Communists. Contrariwise, most felt that the “Chinese treated us the best they could.”

[…] The repatriates identified themselves as prisoners of war or former prisoners. They referred to “The Americans” or “American Forces.” Many responded to the question, “What unit were you with?” with the reply, “Camp Number so-and-so.”

How had the Chinese been able to achieve this transformation of the attitudes and beliefs of captured Americans? Certainly not through brutality – although conditions had been tough, particularly on the march to the prisoner of war camps, and there was always the uncertainty, fostered by the Chinese, that harsh treatment might be meted out in future. Segal writes that

during the period the camps were administered by the Chinese Communists, it was quite apparent that the enemy was far more concerned with indoctrination than with death or physical torture.

Instead they had been able to exploit a powerful cognitive trait: the desire for consistency between what we say and what we believe. Humans like consistency, and work to reduce cognitive dissonance: tension between conflicting attitudes. They will do that either by distorting incoming information to enhance consistency with existing beliefs (a very common bias); or, under certain conditions, by distorting their beliefs and attitudes to keep them in line with observed information: particularly information that they’ve produced themselves. Thus what I’ve publicly said becomes what I actually believe, even if it wasn’t at the time.

First though, you need to undermine the existing attitudes, which are often reinforced by social norms. So the Chinese broke down social organisation among the Americans. Segal writes:

The Communists employed every possible means of denying internal leadership to the prisoners. The absence of organized resistance and of escape, food, and intelligence committees within the camps is testimony to their effectiveness in destroying the group’s internal controls. […] The loss of personal and group identity was a first step in the path towards isolation.

Edgar Schein was also involved in the repatriation process, and later described the same phenomenon [requires subscription]:

The most significant feature of Chinese prison camp control was the systematic destruction of formal and informal group structure. […] The Chinese were able to maintain close surveillance over camp activities by means of intensive spying and the use of informers from POW ranks. [This] created a general air of mistrust within the informal groups that remained and made it difficult for the men to form any kind of close relationships.

The prisoners were on their own – isolated and fearful of being informed upon. They lacked the usual social norms that reinforce our prevailing attitudes. Then the Chinese set the prisoners to writing, and talking about their writings. Life biographies, self-criticism, and confession, extensive exposure to and discussion of pro-Communist and anti-American propaganda. Schein again:

The Chinese […] forced the writing of autobiographies in order to undermine the bonds men felt towards their country or loved ones at home. The emphasis in […] autobiography appeared to be on exposing inconsistencies in the POW’s past history and in whatever information he was giving. The Chinese useed […] ‘discussions’ in which the POW’s values and beliefs were systematically examined or attacked. The POW was encouraged to analyse himself, to think over his past, and to find flaws in his beliefs and values.

Similar discussions happened after propagandistic lectures:

During these meetings the men were to criticize themselves or to discuss their state of political advancement. […] this program of social control, propaganda and indoctrination revolves around the use of the principle of participation […] and the creation of meaningful contexts for attitudes.

Schein was right – participation was key to prompting attitude change: it wasn’t good enough to hear the propaganda, the POWs had to create it themselves. Psychologists now have a good understanding, acquired through lab experiments and field observations like these on the American prisoners, of the powerful psychological urge for consistency. The repeated act of publicly stating a position started to work on the underlying beliefs of the prisoners. Robert Cialdini takes up the story in his terrific book on Influence.

The Chinese relied heavily on commitment and consistency pressures to gain the desired compliance from their captives. [But] short of physical brutalisation. how could the captors hope to get such men to give military information, turn in fellow prisoners, or publicly denounce their country? The Chinese answer was elementary: start small and build.

And so, the prisoners started small, with minor criticisms of America, which – after all – wasn’t perfect. From here it was a slippery slope to larger attitude changes.

Aware that he had written [his] essay without  any strong threats or coercion, many times a man would change his self-image to be consistent with the deed and with the new ‘collaborator’ label, often resulting in even more extensive acts of collaboration.

By making a public commitment (through lectures, discussion and even broadcast of their work), the prisoners shifted their attitudes to be consistent. Few actually converted to Communism, but as Henry Segal concluded:

Measured in terms of confusion, […] disloyalty, changed attitudes and beliefs, […] and doubts as to America’s role, their efforts were highly successful.

Breaking down established social norms and attitudes, and building something new, with only the moderate threat of violence. Sounds a bit like a minor public school. But it worked then – does it work today?


7 thoughts on “We have ways of making you think

  1. Tom Wein says:

    Sure, it worked, and getting people to make a commitment is an enormously powerful way of persuading them. But these men were locked in camps for months on end, their attempts to associate constantly thwarted. These are pretty special circumstances, and the lessons which may be drawn for our own stratcomms efforts are limited.

  2. Agreed – it’s an particular example. The consistency principle has broader applications though: not for nothing did I invoke the example of minor public schools. I might have mentioned madrassas too Meanwhile, on this particular example of a captive audience, last I looked, we had a detainee programme….

  3. Another (not so) well know instance was the management of French POW in Viet-Minh’s camps during the War in Indochina. VM’s procedures were somehow reproduced from their Chinese masters.
    First, these prisoners were isolated and deprived of any personal object. Second, any social structures were deconstructed. Third, starvation and constant working were necessary prerequisites to, four, the brainwashing through propaganda and self-criticism. Indeed, both the weakening that resulted from it and the fear of dying from starvation led most to cooperate with the VM.
    But, a slightly different outcome was that many French did not accept to change their belief, at least apparently, even if they used to fool their torturers (political officers or can bo) through false confessions. It was not always the case for légionnaires (mostly Germans) and for North African soldiers who sometimes embraced the marxist/maoist view of the can bos.
    More, prisoners were used as a propaganda tool targeting the French audience in Metropolitan France and, at some times, their comrades in Indochina. For Instance, the publication of an open letter from French Officers calling to peace and claiming they were responsible of “war crimes” played a great role in the decision of the French Government to negotiate in the end of 1953.
    Eventually, even if former French POW denied they embraced their torturer’s weltanschauung, it is worth to note that many of them, mostly officers, became to transfer the maoist ideology in Algeria and in the more encompassing decolonization wars.

  4. Stéphane – great stuff, thanks. Care to test my schoolboy French with any references you’ve got to hand for post-detention debriefing of French soldiers?

  5. Unfortunately all this material is gathered at the Army Record Center in the chateau de Vincennes. Maybe it is still classified even if it occurred more than 50 years ago. The best you could have access to would be several testimonies by former French POW. You should try to contact the ANAPI, an association of former POW: http://www.anapi.asso.fr/

  6. ajay says:

    Breaking down established social norms and attitudes, and building something new, with only the moderate threat of violence. Sounds a bit like a minor public school.

    More to the point, it sounds a bit like military recruit training.

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