The Pressure to Appear Consistent: American POWs in Korea

Why did so many American Prisoners of War (POWs) collaborate with the Chinese during the Korean War? In 1950, with the Cold War in full swing, Korea's northern communist faction invaded their Southern compatriots with the support of China and the USSR. In response, the United Nations, led by the USA, came to the South's aid leading to the establishment of two countries - one that would become the 11th largest economy in the world, the other going on to become an oppressive dictatorship with third world levels of famine and poverty. I'll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

nk vs sk
nk vs sk

However, the most fascinating part of the Korean war is not what happened on the front lines, but what was going on at the Chinese-run prisoner of war camps. According to American investigators after the war, nearly every captured American soldier collaborated with their captors in some form, at some point during their imprisonment. How can this be? These were highly trained Americans who were surrounded by the Anti-Communist sentiments that dominated US politics so completely. The whole reason that they were even in Korea was because Communism is such a bad thing that it's worth going to war over! Some were so convinced by the Chinese that they decided to stay there after the war!

So, what did the Chinese do that led to such extraordinary results? The answer is that they had a sophisticated understanding of human psychology. In particular, they understood one of the most powerful driving forces behind human activity: the desire to appear consistent.

Below is a short passage from 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert  B. Cialdini where he outlines the source of their success:

An examination of the Chinese prison camp programme shows that its personnel relied heavily on commitment and consistency pressures to gain the desired compliance from prisoners. Of course, the first problem facing the Chinese was how to get any collaboration at all from the Americans. These were men who were trained to provide nothing but name, rank, and serial number. Short of physical brutalization, 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.

For instance, prisoners were frequently asked to make statements so mildly anti-american or Pro communist as to seem inconsequential (“The United States is not perfect.” “In a communist country, unemployment is not a problem.”). But once these minor request were complied with, the men found themselves pushed to submit to related yet more substantive requests. A man who has just agreed with his Chinese interrogator that the United States is not perfect might then be asked to indicate some of the ways in which he thought this was the case. Once he had so explained himself, he might be asked to make a list of these “problems with America” and to sign his name to it. Later he might be asked to read his list in a discussion group with other prisoners. “After all, it's what you really believe, isn't it?” Still later he might be asked to write an essay expanding on his list and discussing these problems in greater detail.

The Chinese might then use his name and his essay in an anti American radio broadcast beamed not only to the entire camp, but to other p.o.w. camps in North Korea, as well as to American Forces in South Korea. Suddenly he would find himself a “collaborator” having given aid to the enemy. Aware that he had written the essay without any strong threats or coercion, many times a man would change his image of himself to be consistent with the deed and with the new “collaborator” label, often resulting in even more extensive acts of collaboration.

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The Desire to Appear Consistent

The passage above highlights clearly how the pressure to appear consistent with your previous actions can lead to dramatic results. What makes this process so insidious is the fact that an individual's self image can change so rapidly and without them even being aware that they are being manipulated.

At no point did the Chinese torture their prisoners or threaten them with punishment if they refused to sign their name to an anti American letter. In fact that would have made it so much easier for the Americans to remain resistant. The genius of the Chinese approach is that each tiny step was one that you freely chose (or at least it felt free). If you chose to write that letter admitting that China is a pretty great place then you take inner responsibility for it, almost guaranteeing that your self image would change to become consistent with your actions. Here's Robert Cialdini again:

Our best evidence of what people truly feel and believe comes less from their words than from their deeds. Observers trying to decide what a man is like look closely at his actions. What the Chinese have discovered is that the man himself uses the same evidence to decide what he is like. His behaviour tells him about himself; [emphasis mine] It is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes. Understanding fully this important principle of self perception, the Chinese set about arranging the prison camp experience so that their captives would consistently act in desired ways. Before long, the Chinese knew, these actions would begin to take their toll, causing the men to change their views of themselves to align with what they had done.

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What does that mean for me?

As fascinating as this story is, the implications are very significant!

The fact is that we all tell ourselves a story about what sort of person we are and what sort of things we believe in. While we like to believe that there is a consistent, immutable part of us that never changes - the truth is that our beliefs and our character are very malleable indeed. Most people think that they know who they are thanks to their ability to 'look inside themselves' and judge their innermost beliefs. In fact, we build our picture of our selves in much the same way that we build a picture of any one else - we look at the things we do and the words we say and draw a conclusion on the evidence.

The scary side of this realisation is that it's possible for other people to attempt to influence your character without you ever realising it. By getting you to make some small concession today, they can change the story that you tell yourself in a way that has very significant long term consequences.

The more optimistic view is that if there are beliefs you have or behaviours you exhibit which you're not happy about - it's quite possible to change those things about yourself! How to do that? Take a lesson from the Chinese Army:

  1. Small actions now can build up into radical changes of perspective - so DO worry about the small stuff and don't brush off seemingly inconsequential actions as harmless if they are not the sort of person you want to be.
  2. The story you tell to yourself about who you are and what you believe can lead to enormous behavioural changes, so protect your story and don't let other people have too much control over it.
  3. The drive to be consistent is understandably powerful and resisting it is uncomfortable, but sometimes it's okay to be inconsistent if you realise that you've started down a path you didn't choose.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this post, I would seriously recommend buying a copy of 'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert  B. Cialdini. It's a really well written book that examines the most powerful ways that people are influenced, and ways to avoid being manipulated.

For a really great summary of why the Korean War happened and why North and South ended up so differently, check out this youtube video.

Buy the book