Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Lenient Policy

In his book, Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini writes about many of the tricks used by what he calls "compliance professionals" to get their marks to accede to their demands.  He details the use of six such "weapons of influence" using case studies and real life examples to explain the psychology behind them, as well as how to protect yourself against them (and how not to become overzealous in doing so, as many of these principles are generally helpful to us).

Look, it's a great book, and an interesting read, but I'm not here to sell books.  I'm here to talk about prisons.  Cialdini writes, in "Commitment and Consistency,"
During the Korean War, many captured American soldiers found themselves in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps run by the Chinese Communists. It became clear early in the conflict that the Chinese treated captives quite differently than did their allies, the North Koreans, who favored savagery and harsh punishment to gain compliance. Specifically avoiding the appearance of brutality, the Red Chinese engaged in what they termed their "lenient policy," which was in reality a concerted and sophisticated psychological assault on their captives. After the war, American psychologists questioned the returning prisoners intensively to determine what had occurred. The intensive psychological investigation took place, in part, because of the unsettling success of some aspects of the Chinese program. For example, the Chinese were very effective in getting Americans to inform on one another, in striking contrast to the behavior of American POWs in World War II.
Cialdini goes on to describe how the Chinese would "start small and build," deftly planting a tiny seed in the minds of their captives and letting their own internal psychological pressures do most of the work.  Reluctant as I am to quote ad nauseum, Cialdini describes the process rather succinctly:
...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 requests were complied with, the men found themselves pushed to submit to related yet more substantive requests. A man who had 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 POW 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.
It's really rather insidious, when you think about it:  between these almost casual conversations, discussion groups, and essay contests - yes, essay contests! - it sounds almost like a retreat.  I mean, except for the squalor and inability to leave and all that.  I'm not at all trying to trivialize the prison experience of these POWs, my point is that the program to which they were subjected had zero violence and got great results.  One of the best parts is that it was cheap, too:  in the aforementioned essay contests, trivial prizes were handed out.  A pack of cigarettes, or some fresh fruit.  This was entirely deliberate, because too-tempting prizes could allow the contestants to rationalize their writing as "for the prize."  But when the prizes are trivial, the contestants are forced to own more of their decision to write what they write.

On top of that, the winning essays weren't always the most pro-Chinese, pro-Communist, or anti-American ones submitted; often, winning essays were selected apparently for sincerity, making only minor concessions to the Chinese while still being largely pro-American.  These minor concessions would then be built upon with those individual writers, who would likely be softened upon winning a contest with a pro-American essay, and a message was sent that the contest was one of merit and not of lip service.  This way, prisoners could not submit just any old dreck that exalted the ideology of their captors, thereby insulating themselves from influence.

The principle upon which this whole operation hinged was to subtly get the prisoner to change his own self-image.  Once that is done, internal pull towards consistency will do the rest.  The trick is to hide from the captive that this is the objective, and to create an environment that facilitates and encourages desired behaviors circumstantial to the final goal, but all pushing together directly towards it by slowly changing an inner mindset.  Indoctrination, in a word.

Rhetorically speaking, this is fighting dirty, but what cannot be denied is its efficacy.  Torture assaults both the body and the mind, but pits the victim's loyalty against the captor's brutality.  The lenient policy is another kind of battle of wills, one that does not attack the ideological fortress outright, but corrodes it from within.  Please do not mistake my words - I do not mean to insinuate that this is worse than torture, and far from it.  What I mean is that this sort of technique is far more effective than torture, despite (perhaps because of) its subtlety.

I guess the question now is:  why does anyone torture any more?  I mean, the only thing that torturing gets you is the sadistic glee of causing pain to the Other.

Oh, wait.

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