Psychological Manipulation of Korean War American POWs

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Have you heard of the Korean War’s American POWs? Did you see them as defectors or victims of psychological manipulation? How were the same techniques used for sales applied to war?

Persuasion tactics and the psychology of commitment were used to solicit collaboration with the Chinese Communists. Learn about the psychological manipulation of Korean War American POWs.

The Consistency Principle says that humans have an obsession with sticking to their guns. Consistency is closely related to commitment. Once we’ve committed to a course of action or to a belief, we pressure ourselves to conform to that commitment. We go through great mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that our current behavior and beliefs align with our past behavior and beliefs, even when they clearly don’t. This principle can be used for psychological manipulation.

The Commitment Trick: The Story of The Korean War American POWs

The experience of Korean War’s American POWs held by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War is a telling example of how the Consistency Principle can radically alter someone’s beliefs and behavior through even small, token acts of prior commitment.

The Chinese engaged in what they called a “lenient policy” toward their captives. Unlike their North Korean allies, they didn’t physically beat or torture their American captives. Instead, they engaged in a long campaign of psychological warfare against them.

In doing so, the Chinese were able to get these POWs to collaborate with their captors and inform on one another. In fact, American authorities concluded that virtually all Chinese-held American POWs in the Korean War collaborated with their captors in some way.

Starting Small

How did the Chinese achieve this level of compliance? By manipulating the instinct for consistency and commitment. 

They started small, first convincing prisoners to write down mildly anti-American statements like “America isn’t perfect,” with which it would be difficult for any reasonable person to disagree. By getting the prisoners to take even these seemingly innocuous positions, the Chinese could extract more and more. They could rely on the Consistency Principle to bring the Korean War American POWs’ later actions into line with their previous commitment.

Escalating the Commitment

Next, the Chinese escalated the commitment. They might, for example, ask a man to make a list of everything wrong with America, sign his name to it, and read it to his fellow Korean War American POWs. If he resisted, his captors knew how to use consistency to bring him back in line. They could remind him, “But this is really what you believe, right?”

Psychologically it was hard for the man to wriggle out of his commitment: after all, his statement was plainly written on paper, in his handwriting. How could he deny the truth of the statement when he had written it himself? They would then take it even further by broadcasting his essay over the radio to the other prisoners and to all American troops and allies in the region.

The public nature of the man’s commitment was critical: he had now gone on record as being a collaborator, for everyone to see.

Changing Their Self-Identity

This is where the exploitation of the Consistency Principle really worked its effects. In making the prisoner’s collaboration known to the whole world, the Chinese had changed his self-conception. He now thought of himself as a collaborator, because of all his previous commitments.

With this label as an ingrained part of his self-identity, the Korean War American POW could reliably be expected to model all of his future behavior and beliefs to conform to it. The prisoner’s change in beliefs could be staggering. By the end of the war, the POWs had come to believe wild Chinese propaganda about American germ warfare; the United States as an aggressive, imperialist power; and the merits of the communist system.

Minimal Rewards

Interestingly, while the Chinese didn’t resort to harsh punishment, they also didn’t give generous material incentives to collaborators. The rewards they did give were minor luxuries like cigarettes or fresh fruit.

This was also by design. If the Chinese granted the collaborators overly generous rewards for their compliance, they might provide the prisoners with a psychological escape hatch: the Americans would be able to convince themselves that they were only collaborating for material gain.

This was not what the Chinese wanted. They wanted the American POWs to genuinely come to embrace their new identity as collaborators. The use of the Consistency Principle was just as much about changing belief as changing behavior.

Getting a Foot in the Door

Of course, most of us (thankfully) won’t have to go through the experience of psychological manipulation in a POW camp. But everyday compliance practitioners like salespeople and fundraisers are just as adept at using the Consistency Principle against us as were the Chinese Communists.
By getting you to make one small commitment, savvy compliance practitioners know how to rope you along and lock you into progressively larger commitments.

Psychological Manipulation of Korean War American POWs

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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