Joshua A. ClaybournIf we hope to heal America’s deep fractures, we must socialize healthier and guard against feedback loops, especially on social
Joshua A. Claybourn
If we hope to heal America’s deep fractures, we must socialize healthier and guard against feedback loops, especially on social media. Powerful lessons from prisoners of war in the Korean War point to a path forward and offer a warning for dropping our guard.
American POWs in North Korean prison camps faced harsh punishment, but prisoners ending up in Chinese-run camps often faced a very different situation. That’s according to “The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War,” a book by Monica Kim, an assistant professor of history at New York University.
In it, Kim portrays a China that utilized a “lenient policy” with subtle psychological attacks so successful that psychologists studied it in depth after the war.
Social media, I’d submit,causes us to unwittingly employ many of the same tactics on ourselves today, feeding American division.
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Most American POWs bravely resisted informing on each other, but the Chinese managed to do it frequently. With soldiers tattling on possible escapees, few attempted leaving. The vast majority of American soldiers compromised their loyalties in Chinese camps. How did this happen? Why would American soldiers turn on their own brothers and country?
Chinese interrogators at work
The Chinese undermined American POWs incrementally, bit by bit. They initially required prisoners to write seemingly mild and relative true statements like “The United States is not perfect” and “Communist countries provide employment for all.” Over time, they pushed POWs to make ever more substantive statements like providing lists of U.S. imperfection and then signing their name to it.
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Eventually, guards required soldiers to share their statements with other prisoners. “After all, your statement is true, correct?” Then soldiers might be asked to expand their lists and provide more detail. Some soldiers tried to avoid doing more, but with incentives like food or cigarettes, most soldiers eventually capitulated and expanded on their essays.
Because even pro-American essays could win contests, Chinese guards did not need to use force. Eventually POWs subconsciously altered their essays in favor of Communism to improve their chances of winning.
Occasionally, a POW’s name and essay would be broadcast to camps, earning such a POW the “collaborator” label. This label causes a dramatic change in your psyche and actions — you alter your self-image and your actions to match them, opening the door to even more collaboration.
On the surface these actions seem inconsequential, but even small commitments will lead to big behavioral changes. Written statements provide physical evidence of your commitment — you cannot run or hide from it. By asking POWs to write (and not simply speak), Chinese guards reshaped POWs’ views of themselves.
When you do something, you eventually change your self-image to match it. And when others view you a particular way, the same thing generally happens — you act consistent with your image. That’s why we judge someone’s feelings and beliefs by their behavior.
The Chinese understood we use the same evidence to define ourselves. We look at our own behavior to define our own beliefs and values.
Tactics used against ourselves
By the end of the Korean War, many POWs in Chinese camps believed the Chinese perspective — that Americans played dirty, the U.S. started the war, and the Communist ideology offered huge benefits.
The psychological principles deployed by the Chinese remain true today, and it plays out clearly on social media. We endorse causes on social media that seem inconsequential. We fail to see anyone coercing it so we own them as our own.
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But tremendous psychological forces do in fact pressure us to post certain things, changing our personal values and beliefs in the process. We crave acceptance in our social circle — a like, a share, a heart. We subconsciously post what garners them most.
When we post a political slogan or share a compelling link, it subtly changes our self-image. And it gives us written evidence that we are the kind of people who communicate and think a certain way.
Social media creates a feedback loop that appeals to our specific tribe — the list of friends and followers we cultivate and come to value — and in the process we more closely mirror them.
Like POWs in a Chinese camp, we experience subtle but persistent pressure to make cheap moralistic statements that please our tribe. In time, it can change our views and cause us to grow ever-more entrenched in them. No wonder that QAnon and extreme wokeness flourish online today.
In an ideal world, we leave social media behind altogether. But even if you must remain, work hard to avoid repeating trite talking points from political parties. Absorb thoughtful commentary from competing views. And as you formulate positions on any given issue, talk it out verbally in an open environment where you feel minimal pressure to conform.
Technology will continually offer both new opportunities and new traps, but the psychology underpinning our response to it remains rooted in human nature.
Joshua A. Claybourn is an attorney and author based in Evansville, Indiana. This column originally appeared in the Indy Star.