Counter Indoctrination

A case study and new micro-level data in Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) forcibly recruited thousands of youth and plied them with threats and violence in order to make them stay. The evidence suggests that child [soldier] recruits were less able than adult ones, so superior ability is not a driving force of child soldiering in this case. Rather, the Uganda data and interviews suggest that children were retained because they were more easily indoctrinated and misinformed than adults, and had more difficulty escaping—with ease of indoctrination being especially influential. … Initial data from a random sample of [African rebel] groups display two relationships consistent with our model. First, where we observe child recruitment we also tend to observe forcible recruitment (one of the most easily measured forms of coercion). Second, forced child recruitment is most common when punishment is cheap. … Child recruitment is inversely associated with military protection of refugee and displacement camps. (more)

The US military also relies heavily on near age 18 soldiers, even though age 28 soldiers are probably more skilled at most tasks. The US also probably prefers younger soldiers because they are more easily indoctrinated, misinformed, and intimidated. Which reminds us that interest groups often fight over who gets to train kids, as the winners get to choose their favored indoctrination. Which reminds us that the winner of such a fight indoctrinated you when young.

Once you are an adult who realizes that your younger self was unreasonably gullible, you should try to undo that bias, at least if you want to have accurate beliefs. If you can imagine how other powers would have instead tried to indoctrinate you, had they controlled your indoctrination, you might try to believe something in-between these various indoctrination extremes. Of course you should also add in whatever can be inferred from the fact that one particular power was in fact strong enough to win the contest to indoctrinate you. Though it is not clear why this would mean their indoctrination was more true.

So what biases we expect from young school indoctrination? Perhaps excess respect for:

  1. Teachers and their allies
  2. Life value of formal education
  3. Being quiet and doing what you are told
  4. Governments like those that run schools
  5. The region or nation where you lived
  6. Having regular workday, like at school
  7. What else?

Added 8a: The military is an especially capital intense industry, which makes it especially important to have skilled labor to complement all that expensive capital. All else equal, this would induce this industry to outcompete other industries for more skilled workers, such as 28 year olds. So there must be some other factor that pushes them to hire 18 year olds. It can’t be pure physical strength and stamina, as few military jobs today require that.

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  • Doug

    What else?

    A general belief the in the Hegellian improving nature of history, especially as it relates to recent history. I.e. that history is a battle between good and evil, and over time good wins out. The values of the past that we no longer hold are bad and evil, and were conquered by the good, caring values associated with the present.

    The simple extrapolation from this is that the values of the near future (i.e. those views that are not popular but have a higher probability of being more widely adopted soon), must be better than the values from the very recent past that are currently dying off.

    Quite simply, left-leaning bias.

    • Ely

      I think “progressive bias” is a better term than left-leaning bias. The same effect is present in many political ideologies; for example, in America, the Republican party has at many times in the recent past attempted to justify a conservative-progressive switch in ideology by claiming that it is what America’s political founders had intended all along, a sort of fake-argument-from-history when in actuality, the historical evidence does not support the claim. This is an especially scary form of this bias because the practitioners are using traditionalism rhetoric to get people to support decisions clouded by this progressive bias. For example, the neo-conservative agenda to Constitutionally define marriage between a man and a woman has absolutely no justification from a Constitutionalist perspective. It is just a conservative belief that, if a near-term majority of people will support an enforced definition of marriage then it must be better than the current definition. To convince people to accept the idea, distortions of past political views is used as the main justification. It’s the same ruse as any progressive bias on the left, but with the added caveat that you are supposed to believe that it’s historically justified.

      For example, if left-leaning people claimed that homosexuals should be granted equal rights, and their primary line of reasoning was that American legislators and citizens in the 50s and 60s advocated vociferously for equal rights for minorities, and hence historically they must be in favor of equal rights for all possible lifestyle choices, this would be biased. This would be advocating equal rights for homosexuals as an extrapolation of equal rights for some other class of people, rather than simply saying that homosexuals are people whose lifestyle choices do not have an effect on society that needs to be restricted or regulated in order to meet the social demands of our society.

      Similarly, if some conservatives wanted to ban gay marriage and the primary reason was one of historical tradition, this would simple be progress bias (where near term progress to the conservative might represent a shift “back to unalienable traditional moral principles” or something). A clear headed objection to gay marriage would have to be based on quantifiable social concerns.

      • Anonymous

        There are other reasons why somebody might want to ban gay marriage that are reasonable and not based on social concerns.
        A- Religion (faulty premise, reasonable conclusion of it.)
        B- Not liking seeing it (if they’re highly selfish)

  • Once you are an adult who realizes that your younger self was unreasonably gullible, you should try to undo that bias, at least if you want to have accurate beliefs. If you can imagine how other powers would have instead tried to indoctrinate you, had they controlled your indoctrination, you might try to believe something in-between these various indoctrination extremes.

    I teach Paul Graham’s essays What You Can’t Say and What You’ll Wish You’d Known in part to counter the biases of whoever taught most of my students in the K – 12 period. Those same students are fairly surprised at someone in a presumed authority position telling them to doubt people in assumed authority positions (the cleverer among them also sometimes say, “Should we also doubt your encouragement towards doubting those in assumed authority positions?”, which leads us in a recursive and funny direction).

  • Brian

    The US military also relies heavily on near age 18 soldiers, even though age 28 soldiers are probably more skilled at most tasks. The US also probably prefers younger soldiers because they are more easily indoctrinated, misinformed, and intimidated.

    Wait, what? Children are more easily indoctrinated, but when we hit 20 year olds, that seems really unlikely. Men are generally in peak physical shape at that age, which is a much more likely reason to recruit at 18. Good privates are young, while the officer corps (needing more experience, leadership ability, and mental skill) is older.

  • Fnord

    I’m not sure I disagree with your conclusion, but is that actually what this paper is saying? I only skimmed it, but it focused on the ease of indoctrinating children in the short-to-medium term; months or years, not decades.

  • g

    Age 28 soldiers are doubtless more skilled at most soldiers’ tasks. That would be (at least in part) because they have typically been soldiers since age 18. Age 28 soldiers who haven’t been in the military before might not be so good.

    Also, another kinda-exploitative reason why the military might prefer younger recruits: They tend to be cheaper. To put it a bit less cynically: a typical 28-year-old civilian has invested years in developing skills that increase his value to (some) other possible employers, but mostly won’t do much to increase his value as a private.

  • Brian and g, see my added to the post.

    • John

      You’re assuming that skills developed in the civilian world are equally, or nearly equally, useful in the military.

      In cases where this is true (e.g. civil affairs officers) the military actually does try to recruit older, more experienced people.

      In cases where this is not true (e.g. the vast majority of cases–pretty much all enlisted soldiers, most types of officers, etc.) the military tries to recruit people who are as young as possible.

      If military skills are mostly not equivalent to civilian skills, isn’t that a pretty good explanation of why the military chooses to hire young people and choose those who gain the most skills for promotion? This has the extra benefit of explaining why you can’t join the military as a Captain or a Gunnery Sergeant–because when you first join the military you are only skilled enough to be at the bottom of the rank structure, no matter how awesome your resume is.

  • Trevor Blake

    The claims of religion seem unlikely to adults hearing of religions not their own, more so to nonreligious adults hearing of religion. This suggests childhood indoctrination is key to perpetuating religion. Take the following sample and consider whether a child or an adult would be more likely to say they agree…

    Once upon a time a talking snake convinced rib lady to eat a magic fruit. Rib lady convinced dust man to try the magic fruit too. That make sky father angry, so they had to get jobs. Sky father stayed angry until he killed himself as a sacrifice to himself. Now, if you let someone else take the blame for your mistakes you are good and can fake your death.

    • Thursday

      Yes and no, religiosity in general, and Christianity in particular, actually went up in Russia and several other countries after the fall of communism, suggesting that even anti-religious indoctrination doesn’t keep people from becoming religious once restrictions on religion are lifted. I’ve actually been close with a couple religious girls raised in non-religious homes in formerly communist countries. They report how, when exposed to Christianity, it just “made sense.” Some people are just naturally religious.

    • Thursday

      Conversions to a religion tend to come in adolescence or early adulthood. Conversions later in life tend to come only after some traumatic event or through the influence of a spouse.

      • No

        Thursday, what happened to your blog?

  • “Colleges also prefer younger recruits because they are more easily indoctrinated, misinformed, and intimidated.”???

    Whoops, that’s not what you wrote? Sorry bout that.

    The obvious reason both colleges and the military have young students/recruits is because of career path considerations. The fact the young may be easily indoctrinated…etc. is just a side issue, of benefit only to professors and drill sergeants.

  • Douglas Knight

    Special cases of this questions that people may find helpful: why doesn’t the army recruit from the navy? from the police?

    This has a simple response that parts of the government have formed a cartel not to compete with each other; but I think this is not the right answer.

    But, within the army, the various special forces, which have their own indoctrinations, do poach from each other.

  • Mark

    “The US also probably prefers younger soldiers because they are more easily indoctrinated, misinformed, and intimidated.”

    I disagree. I don’t think it’s reasonable to use the logic a press gang uses for selecting children and believe that the U.S. military uses the same logic in selecting their targets for voluntary recruitment. 10 year-olds in Uganda are far easier to indoctrinate, misinform, and intimidate than 18 year-olds in the U.S.

    In the U.S. younger soldiers are more likely to join because they aren’t as likely to have an established social and professional environment that would be interrupted by military service. It makes sense to concentrate recruitment efforts on the group of qualified individuals that is most likely to join. Younger soldiers also happen to be more easily indoctrinated and intimidated. I can’t pretend that this isn’t beneficial, but it doesn’t imply that there is a group who is otherwise preferable, just as willing to join, but is avoided or discouraged because they are less easily indoctrinated and intimidated.

    Younger soldiers in the U.S. are far less likely to be misinformed now than in the past due to today’s ubiquitous technology. Misinforming soldiers is a poor strategy because they will not remain misinformed for long, and then will lose trust in their superiors.

    • Matt Knowles

      The US also probably prefers younger soldiers because they are more easily indoctrinated, misinformed, and intimidated.

      I also think this is misleading, but I confess I have a bias in favor of the US Military.

      That said, isn’t it just as likely that the US prefers younger soldiers because they are less likely to have already been indoctrinated, misinformed, or intimidated against the military’s interests?

  • you might try to believe something in-between these various indoctrination extremes.

    Not sure about this. Is there any reason to expect an “in-between” view to be more likely true, just because it is “in-between”?

    Faced with evidence that one’s position was unreliably formed, but lacking evidence as to what a more accurate position would be, the reasonable thing to do seems to be not to change your beliefs (yet) but just to hold them more tentatively: be on the lookout for new evidence, and be prepared to change your beliefs more readily in light of such new evidence.

    • Being uncertain as to which of these positions is more true is “in-between,” at least in the way I use the word.

  • John Donnelly

    Nice post. Thanks. I was talking to a divorced mother recently and commenting that she might want to warn her teenagers of the possibility of learned problematic behaviors from their abusive, alcoholic father. At times, the teenagers are abusive and believe that its ok.

    Parental indoctrination seems to be our largest influence to overcome (or not).

    • Wonks Anonymous

      Have you read Judith Harris’ “The Nurture Assumption”? Maybe the kids act like that because they share genes with an abusive, alcoholic father. They also might have peers who behave in that way.

  • I don’t know if this is true. First I look at military workers a bit like ruggedized equipment: an IT specialist in the military deploying to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other zones of conflict and instability I think would have to be built to withstand greater deprivations than a civilian IT specialist working in the Bay Area.

    Second, I’m not sure 18 year old men are as indoctrinatable as either children or the elderly: they’re at the peak of testosterone production and are probably one of the harder populations for institutions to control. This is closer to my conspiracy theory for military conscription or inducement: a space less paternal than prison but more paternal than civil society to contain/buy out a relatively instable population.

    Abortion + prison + military inducement may sop up quite a bit of chaos out of the larger civil society.

  • Scott Messick

    7. Saying things that earn you points, instead of saying things you think are true.

    8. Having a consistent routine each day, particularly one that involves going some place other than your home and doing quiet activities indoors for most of the daylight hours.

  • John

    9. Perfection (100% A+) is attainable. In fact, most of the time, when someone does badly, it’s because they didn’t care enough to read the assigned material.

  • Trey

    Disproportionately lower cost of recruitment- 18 year olds have lower opportunity cost relative to their skill disparity with 28 year olds. Also, going ten years of eligibility without enlisting signals unwillingness to enlist/higher cost of recruitment.

  • 10. Enduring boredom is virtuous.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Good to see you noting downsides of farmer values,
    in particular, those of group indoctrination. Nice change!

  • Alrenous

    11. The idea that education is like what you find in schools.
    12. The honesty and accuracy of teachers; that being honest and accurate is acting like a teacher.
    13. People that claim to be dispassionate or impartial.
    Channeling John Taylor Gatto
    14. Working or living in a socially-determined location, over choosing.
    14.a. Assigned work over chosen work.
    15. Surveillance and being judged.
    16. Wisdom from authority as opposed to personal or peer sources.
    17. Structured time over unstructured time.

    18. The obedient over the disobedient. (“Control of the classroom is important for a teacher…”)

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  • Ari T

    Well here we get indoctrinated in public schools and conscription. Both institutions tend to produce people who support those institutions. It seems to me that they quickly develop a steady-state that is hard to change even when its highly inefficient. If the state feeds you, subsidies you, educates you and trains how to fight for itself, it easily crowds-out any alternatives in most minds.

    The army is really a indoctrination centre, perhaps also on biological level. You get to hear a lot of patriotic music, oaths and “rituals” that have an effect subconsciously.

    I suppose older people have much more experience in fraud, contracts and life in general and so on not to make such hasty contracts with the state. I imagine it would be much harder to make them to do the same things.

  • For starters all your arguments about schools being primarily signalling devices suggests to me that other things being equal an 18 year old (who has more inherint physical fitness) is more valuable. Indeed, if one assumes that military skills are substantially different than the skills gained in most civilian occupations (or simply unique to the weapons systems used) then the 28 year old would be less valuable.

    Also I suspect that the supply of 18 year olds willing to enter the army is much larger than that for 28 year olds at comparable levels of compensation.

    By 28 one is often married or romantically committed making one more averse to leaving home for long deployments and having been on your own for longer less willing to accept the army culture and curtailing of liberties.

    Also 18 year olds can potentially re-enlist more times while still physically capable of battle. Even if you assume they leave at the same rate as 28 year olds by recuiting 18 year olds the military creates a pool of young men with military experience that could be drafted in a crisis.

  • There is not a lot of evidence that Western Armies need people who are ” particularly easily indoctrinated, misinformed, and intimidated”. Many armies did have older long term soldiers: England’s pre-WW1 “Old Contemptible”, and the pre-WW2 Marine Corp particularly come to mind.

    The preference toward the younger recruits came with mass conscription. When you start pulling massive numbers of people out society to man your army, it is extremely disruptive to pull the fully functioning working people out. I have seen it stated that the Germans did not starve during WW1 because of the allied blockade, but because they had pulled too many people out of the agricultural sector.

    The various reasons noted above explain why it was easiest to keep using the youngsters.