When we started writing this book, the first question I asked my grandfather was: "Why did you begin studying what was right with people?" Don answered my question without a moments hesitation - his review of one specific case study had altered the entire focus of his career ad life.
And this study was about as far as possible from positive or inspiring story:
Following the Korean War, Major (Dr.) William E. Mayer, who would later become the U.S. Army's chief psychiatrist, studied 1,000 American prisoners of war who had been detained in a North Korean camp. He was particularly interested in examining one of the most extreme and perversely effective cases of psychological warfare on record - one that had a devastating impact on it's subject.
American soldiers had been detained in camps that were not considered especially cruel or unusual by conventional standards. The captive soldiers had adequate food, water, and shelter. They weren't subjected to common physical torture tactics of the time such as having bamboo shoots driven under their fingernails. In fact, fewer cases of physical abuse were reported in the North Korean POW camps than in prison camps from any other major military conflict throughout history:
Why then, did so many American soldiers die in these camps? They weren't hemmed in the barbed wire. Armed guards didn't surround the camps. Yet no soldier ever tried to escape. Furthermore, these men regularly broke rank and turned against each other, sometimes forming close relationships with their North Korean captors. When the survivors were released to a Red Cross group in Japan, they were given the chance to phone loved ones to let them know they were alive. Very few bothered to make the call.
Upon returning home, the soldiers maintained no friendships or relationships with each other. Mayer described each man as being in a mental "solitary confinement cell...without any steel or concrete."
Mayer had discovered a new disease in the POW camps- a disease of extreme hopelessness. It was not uncommon for a soldier to wander into his hut and look despairingly about, deciding there was no use in trying to participate in his own survival. He would go into a corner alone, sit down, and pull a blanket over his head. And he would be dead within two days.
The soldiers actually called it"give up itis." The doctors labeled it "mirasmus," meaning, in Mayer's words, "a lack of resistance, a passivity." If the soldiers had been hit, spat upon, or slapped, they would have become angry. Their anger would have given them motivation to survive. But in the absence of motivation, they simply died, even though there was no medical justification for their deaths.
Despite relatively minimal physical torture, "mirasmus" raised the overall death rate in the North Korean POW camps to incredible 38%- the highest POW death rate in the U.S. military history. Even more astounding was that half of these soldiers died simply because they had given up. They had completely surrendered, both mentally and physically. How could this have happened? The answers were found in the extreme mental tactics that the North Korean captors used. They employed what Mayer described as the "ultimate weapon" of war.
The "Ultimate Weapon"
Mayer reported that the North Koreans' objective was to "deny men the emotional support that comes from interpersonal relationships." To do this, the captors used four primary tactics:
*breaking loyalty to leadership and country
*withholding all positive emotional support.
To encourage informing, the North Koreans gave prisoners rewards such as cigarettes when they snitched on one another. But neither the offender nor the soldier reporting the violation was punished - the captors encouraged this practice for a different reason. Their intent was to break relationships and turn the men against each other. The captors understood that the soldiers could actually harm each other if they were encouraged to dip from their comrades' buckets every day.
To promote self-criticism, the captors gathered groups of 10 or 12 soldiers and employed what Mayer described as "a corruption of groups psychotherapy." In these sessions, each man was required to stand up in front of the group and confess all the bad things he had done - as well as all the good things he could have done but failed to do.
The most important part of this tactic was that the soldiers were not "confessing" to the North Korean, but to their peers. By subtly, eroding the caring, trust, respect, and social acceptance among the American soldiers, the North Korean created an environment in which buckets of goodwill were constantly and ruthlessly drained.
The third major tactic that the captors employed was breaking loyalty to leadership and country. The primary way they did this was by slowly and relentlessly undermining a soldier's allegiance to his superiors.
The consequences were ghastly. In one case, a colonel instructed one of his men not to drink the water from a rice paddy field because he knew the organisms in the water might kill him. The soldier looked at his colonel and remarked,"Buddy, you ain't no colonel anymore, you're just a lousy prisoner like me. You take care of yourself, and I'll take care of me." The soldier died of dysentery a few days later.
In another case, 40 men stood by as three of their extremely ill fellow soldiers were thrown out of their mud hut by a comrade and left to die in the elements. Why did their fellow soldiers do nothing to help them? Because it wasn't their job. The relationships had been broken; the soldiers simply didn't care about each other anymore.
But the tactic of withholding all positive emotional support while inundating soldiers with negative emotions was perhaps bucket dipping in the purest and most malicious form. If a soldier received a supportive letter from home, the captors withheld it. All negative letters, however - such as those telling of a relative passing away, or ones in which a wife wrote that she had given up on her husband's return and was going to remarry - were delivered to soldiers immediately. The captors would even deliver overdue bills from collection agencies back home - within less than two weeks of the original postmark. The effects were devastating; The soldiers had noting to live for and lost basic belief in themselves and their loved ones, not to mention God and country. Mayer said that the North Koreans had put the American soldiers "into a kind of emotional and psychological isolation, the likes of which had never seen."
Studying Positive Emotions
Moved by this story of psychological torture and deprivation - and perhaps inspired by the hope that these soldiers had not suffered or died in vain - Don Clifton and his colleagues decided to study the flip side of this horrific equation. They wondered: If people can be literally destroyed by unrelenting negative reinforcement, can they be uplifted and inspired to a greater degree by similar levels of positive reinforcement? In essence, they asked:
Can positive emotions have an even stronger impact than negative emotions? --
CHANGE YOUR OUTLOOK, CHANGE YOUR LIFE.