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.

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The New ABCs of Selling

For a lot of people, when you say the word 'sales' they think of sleazy men with greasy hair trying to trick you into losing your money. The fact is that selling in the 21st Century is a completely different kettle of fish.

In 'To sell is human' by Daniel Pink, he makes a compelling case for a new frame of mind: Everyone does sales. It's an entirely human activity and one that doesn't deserve the bad reputation it has. To get started on the path being a great salesperson, first you need to redefine the ABCs of selling. Here's how to do it.

Coffee's for closer

If you haven't seen the film 'Glengarry Glen Ross' you should stop reading right now and go watch it. (Seriously, it's on Netflix. It's amazing.) If you have seen it, you'll recognise this scene in which Alec Baldwin motivates a sales team in a ball-busting, angry sort of way:


This is what many people think of when they hear the term 'salesman'. Some great quotes from Baldwin that make you hope never to cross paths with someone like him:

  • "First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado ... Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is your fired. You get the picture?"
  • "Only one thing counts in this life! Get them to sign on the line that is dotted!"
  • "They're sitting out there waiting to give you their money! Are you gonna take it?"
  • "Nice guy? I don't give a shit. Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids."

As Alec Baldwin suggests in the clip above, in traditional sales, 'ABC' stands for 'Always Be Closing'. It's a call to action for pushy salesmen to do whatever it takes (and say whatever they can think of) to get you to sign the dotted line as quickly as possible.

The good news is that although there are undoubtedly still Alec Baldwin type figures in the real world, they are a dying breed. And it's not the way to be a great sales person today.

The New ABCs

The first step towards being a great sales person is to redefine your understanding of the ABCs. Daniel Pink, in his great book 'To Sell is Human' suggests these new definitions:

A is for Attunement

Attunement is the ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes, or get on their wavelength. To be successful in sales, you don't bulldoze through every conversation as if every person is exactly the same. People are very complex and if you attempt to brow beat your prospective customer into handing over their cash you'll only drive them away.

Try to see things from the perspective of your customer and ask yourself, 'what pains and problems they are feeling?'. Have an honest conversation in which you seek to learn more about your customer's life and identify a way in which your product or service can solve a problem for them.

Many people assume that extraverts make the best salesmen i.e. those who are outgoing, assertive and lively in social situations. On the traditional view of salesmen that makes sense - if you enjoy being the life and soul of a conversation and taking the lead in social situations then you'd have no problem talking someone's ear off until they pay you. However, Pink argues that rather than aiming to be an extravert, you should aim to be an ambivert.

An ambivert is someone who is equal part introverted and extraverted. In order to be a great salesman you must not be so extraverted that you overwhelm the other person and steamroll their ability to talk, or make them feel like they're being pushed around. But equally, you must not be so introverted that you're unable to open the conversation in the first place and close the deal when the time is right.

Be an ambivert. Listen to your customer and make a genuine attempt to understand them.

B is for Buoyancy

Buoyancy is all about staying positive and not letting rejection get you down.

Anyone who has ever tried selling something knows what it's like to get rejected. Some people are so put off by thought of rejection that they never even try to make a sale. They take rejection of a product as a personal rejection of their worth as a human being -- obviously to be a great salesperson you cannot let rejection get the better of you. You must be buoyant.

Pink's strategies for remaining buoyant are broken into three stages; before, during and after.

For me, the most important part of being buoyant is the final stage: explanatory style.

If you try to make a sale and are turned away, you naturally explain your failure in one of two ways: optimistically or pessimistically. When a pessimit is rejected, they say something like: 'This is all my fault. I can't sell anything to anyone, and it will never get better.' They see rejection as a permanent, pervasive and personal thing.

On the other hand, optimists recognise that rejection is almost always:

  • temporary ('Not this time, but maybe they will say yes next time.)
  • specific to a particular situation ('They just weren't in the mood today, but not everyone will be that way.')
  • and almost never personal ('They aren't rejecting me personally, they just don't need what I'm selling at the moment.')

People with an optimistic explanatory style stick with things longer, make more sales and quit their jobs far less frequently than pessimists. Of course, Pink isn't recommending a pair of rose tinted glasses - you shouldn't be blindly optimistic no matter what. Instead, you should try to form what's called 'flexible optimism - optimism with it's eyes open.' (Pink is quoting Martin Seligman.)

C is for Clarity

Finally, there is clarity which is all about identifying the real problem (through attunement, above) and framing your product or service in the right way for your customer.

People pay for products or services to solve a problem, but they aren't always experts on what the real problem is, or what the best solution looks like. For instance let's say a team of accountants is working on a bunch of spreadsheets together. They go to a software developer and ask him to build them a messaging service so that they can talk to each other more easily and make sure that everyone is using the latest version of the spreadsheet.

It sounds like the accountants know the problem, but actually it might be the case that a messaging service is not what they need. What they need is something like 'Dropbox' - a cloud storage solution which each person can update in real time so that everyone is working on the same thing.

In this way, the salesman's job is often not just to listen to the customer identify the problem. The salesman may also have to help the customer see that they haven't got to the 'root' of a problem, or that the solution they have identified isn't the best one.

As for framing - the general idea is that you can frame your offering in a number of ways that will impact whether customer chooses to buy. The 'frames' that Pink talks about are:

  • The less frame: Too many options can be a bad thing. If there are lots of options then it's easy to be overwhelmed. Sometimes reducing the options to just 2 or 3 choices can greatly increase the number of people who buy.
  • The experience frame: People gain more happiness from experiences, so frame your sale in experiential terms. If you're selling a car, don't spend too long on how nice the leather seats are, talk about how it will make them feel to drive along the coast on a beautiful summer evening.
  • The label frame: When you assign a positive label to a person or group then they often conform to that positive characteristic.
  • The potential frame: Potential is more interesting than accomplishment - sell yourself on your future as well as past.

The final part of clarity is giving your customers clear directions on how to act. It should be very easy for them to take the next step, and they shouldn't have to spend time trying to 'figure out' what to do.

Go and sell!

So, there we have the new ABCs of selling. If you're keen to learn more, I would very much recommend Daniel Pink's book, it goes into much more detail. The final third of the book is all about how to act when you're selling, and there's real practical tips on making the pitch, improvising when you need to and serving your customers to make a sale.

Of course a lot of the stuff he talks about applies not just in the cases of formally selling a product to a customer, but applies to any occasion when you need to persuade someone.

Next time you're having a disagreement with someone, try the ABCs of selling. Attune yourself to their way of thinking - what are they really concerned about? Try to be buoyant - don't take the disagreement personally, it won't last forever. And aim for clarity - identify the real problem and frame your solution in the best way.

Hope that helps!

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