May 9, 2007

The opposite of mentally breaking people

Donald O’Clifton, who died several years ago, can be seen as one of the founders of positive psychology. As early as in the nineteen fifties, he realized that focusing on what people do well, is the core of making them flourish. What convinced him was a study done by William E. Mayer about American prisoners of war in the Korean War (Rath & Clifton, 2004). American prisoners of war were exposed by the Koreans to a regime that at first glance did not seem to be so cruel because they got food, water and shelter and were not physically tortured.

Mayer tried to find out what was the reason that still so many prisoners died (38%, the highest percentage in American military history). When the prisoners had been set free they turned out be mentally broken. They were no longer interested in calling relatives and there were no friendships between them. Mayer found out that the Koreans had mentally broken the prisoners by using four tactics: 1) inform: prisoners were rewarded with things like cigarettes when they betrayed each other; 2) self-criticism was encouraged. In groups each man had to confess all the bad things he had done and all the good things he had failed to do, 3) loyalty to country, family and among them and towards their leadership was broken down systematically and step-by step, 4) emotional support was kept from them by withholding positive letters by relatives and by consequently letting through all negative letters (for instance about deaths in the family or remarriage of a spouse).

In particular, this last tactic was very effective in breaking the moral of the prisoners and made them lose all hope and the lust for life. Donald O’Clifton was deeply impressed by these findings and decided to spend his career to the opposite of what the Korean soldiers had done. His core question was: if the Koreans, by their negative tactics succeeded in breaking the people mentally, can positive tactics cause the opposite, make them flourish? The short answer to this question, after years of research, is 'yes'. Research done by Gallup has show that managers worldwide focus mainly on negative attributes and shortcomings. The most effective managers, however, do the opposite: they focus primarily on what is going right and encourage people to build on their strengths.


  1. Coert,

    This is very interesting. It's terrible that the Koreans used these tactics in war. However it's wonderful t hear that Donald O’Clifton was able to come up with positive means of helping people based on these tactics. It's like "what works" in reverse.


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