Indoctrination as a wedge strategy: faith schools and foot-in-the-door techniques

Indoctrination as a wedge strategy: faith schools and foot-in-the-door techniques March 25, 2015

My last post on indoctrination, Children are not that gullible, which makes indoctrination even more odious, was an unexpected hit. I had no idea people would be so interested in the psychology of indoctrination. So here’s a follow-up, about how the psychology of Foot in the Door techniques helps explain the exaggerated religious commitment you see from some religious school leavers.

In 1966, Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published the results of a psychological experiments that has become a classic in the field. Because their findings are so unexpected but so vivid, they’ve joined the ranks of studies that are famous well outside of the field.

Here’s how Robert Cialdini recounts the events in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

[A] researcher, posing as a volunteer worker, had gone door to door in a residential California neighborhood making a preposterous request of homeowners. The homeowners were asked to allow a public-service billboard to be installed on their front lawns. To get an idea of how the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. Although the request was normally and understandably refused by the great majority (83 percent) of the other residents in the area, this particular group of people reacted quite favorably. A full 76 percent of them offered the use of their front yards.

How was this achieved? Two weeks earlier, the people in this surprisingly compliant group had made a small commitment to driver safety.

Photo my Marcus Quigmire.
Photo by Marcus Quigmire.

A different volunteer worker had come to their doors and asked them to accept and display a little three-inch-square sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. It was such a trifling request that nearly all of them had agreed to it. But the effects of that request were enormous. Because they had innocently complied with a trivial safe-driving request a couple of weeks before, these homeowners became remarkably willing to comply with another request that was massive in size.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to account for just how I was able to become as extreme a religious zealot as I was when I was a teenager, and how some narrow faith schools manage to produce such exaggerated religious commitments in their students. I think the foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique that Freedman and Fraser made famous is part of the answer. One thing to note early on is that FITD doesn’t always work, but that is if anything a strength for my argument: children don’t always emerge from fundamentalist schools totally indoctrinated. Tactics that work only some of the time are exactly what we’re looking for. Burger’s 1999 meta-analysis found that the overall effect of FITD was quite small (overall range .09-.17, stats fans). But that’s OK. If a single instance of this technique can produce a small change, it’s plausible that 12 years of it being used in school would add up to quite a big change. In any case, I am only arguing that this is one of several factors involved in manipulating students’ beliefs in some faith schools.

Self-perception theory is commonly used to explain this behaviour. After making the small commitment to driver safety, these people were now more likely to see themselves as people who cared about this issue, and people who complied with requests to support it. Jerry Burger identifies several more processes at play in these kinds of experiments:

  • Reciprocity and reactance

Reciprocity is just the social norm that if you do something for me, I will feel obliged to do something in return for you. In experiments where experimenters were flouting this norm, people were less likely to comply with their later requests. Reactance is the fact that if we perceive people as threatening our freedoms, we will resist the pressure to do what they tell us.

In a conservative Christian school, I’d think it’s quite likely that these norms don’t function the same way as they do between two independent adults. There is not the same expectation that if you do something for a teacher that they should do anything for you in return. Nor do children in ACE-type schools have the same concept of personal liberty. It is expected that children will obey. I’m sure you do get reactance from some students (I remember it happening, and it was sometimes spectacular), but obedience is so stressed in these schools that it often overrides other concerns. Children don’t have rights of their own; they must simply submit to the god-ordained authority of their elders.

  • Conformity to the norm

People tend to do what they perceive as the norm. Conformity effects on behaviour in Christian schools are, I am sure, very strong and I will do a separate blog post on this. For here it’s enough to say that Burger finds that where complying with requests is seen as the norm, people are more likely to do so. I think it’s fair to say that compliance is the norm in the Christian schools I’m talking about.

  • Consistency

We all experience internal pressures to behave consistently, but some people have this more strongly than others. If you’re someone who has a strong preference for behaving consistently, once you’ve complied with the initial request, you’re much more likely to agree to the later one. This helps us to understand why the effect works more strongly on some people than others.

  • Attribution

The thing that’s so interesting about FITD is that, when it works as it did for Freedman and Fraser, people seem to comply with the second request almost without thinking. Nevertheless, sometimes people may find themselves thinking about why they agreed to the first request. If they conclude that they were pressured into it, they are less likely to agree to larger subsequent requests than if they believe they agreed to the first one because it supported their beliefs. It makes sense that this would be at play in a religious school. Some students feel they only take part in worship because they have to, others because they believe it. It’s the second category who are more easily manipulated into bigger commitments later on.

  • Labelling

There’s a lot of evidence that labels affect our behaviour. Labelling someone as helpful makes them more likely to act helpfully in future. I don’t think there’s any denying that Christian schools label children. They tell them that they do the things they do because they are Christians, and Christians do what Jesus wants. I once overheard one of my supervisors telling off a child for being naughty.

“While you were doing it, did you feel a sense that what you were doing was wrong?” she asked. The boy nodded. I thought I knew what she would say next: the boy should obey his conscience. That’s not what she said.

“That’s the Holy Spirit telling you what’s right,” she finished.

If labelling people helpful makes them more likely to comply with requests to be helpful, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that labelling children as Christians will make them more likely to take part in religious observance. And as thousands of atheists have observed before me, this is wrong, because there’s no such things as a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist child. There are just children of Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist parents. (Some of you will disagree on the atheist part. We’ll save that discussion for the comments.)

  • Commitment

Once you’re committed to something, you’re become resistant to changing your course. This is not rocket science. It explains the effectiveness of low-balling as a sales strategy. In one experiment, customers who agreed to buy a car for $5000 were more likely to buy it when the price was raised to $5500 than people who were just shown the higher price in the first place. Their initial commitment remained even after the price changed. I don’t think it’s any secret that Christian schools are trying to extract commitments from their students.

Burger concludes:

Researchers, salespeople, recruiters and others are most likely to increase compliance with the FITD technique when they (a) allow individuals to perform the initial request, (b) overtly label the person as helpful or as a supporter of these kinds of causes, (c) require more than a minimal amount of effort to perform the initial request, and (d) make the target request essentially a continuation of the initial request.

Looks to me like these conditions are satisfied in Accelerated Christian Education schools.

Researchers, salespeople, and the like will reduce the effectiveness of the procedure and may even do more harm than good when they (a) inform individuals that few people agree to the initial request, (b) use the same person to deliver a second request for a different behavior immediately after the first request, and (c) pay individuals for performing the initial request.

Point (c) just adds to wealth of material which says that extrinsic rewards don’t work. I don’t want to give ACE tips on how to indoctrinate better, but their privilege system of rewards and punishments is almost certainly counterproductive to their own goals.

So my hypothesis is this: The small requests of children in ACE schools to participate in Christian activities—memorising Bible verses, saying a pledge of allegiance to the Bible, singing a Christian song—makes them more likely to accept big requests further down the line: to volunteer in churches, to attend an unaccredited Christian college rather than a real university, or to become missionaries.

In case it’s not clear, I think this kind of manipulation is unethical. Children don’t actually have a real choice whether to participate in those Christian activities in ACE schools. Any appearance of choice is superficial and the cost of noncompliance is high. If you wanted to refuse to say the pledge of allegiance to the Bible in an ACE school, the cost would be punishments, social alienation, being treated differently by staff, and possibly expulsion from school. Yet saying that pledge every day for years is bound to influence the student’s self-perception. It is an attempt to condition them into being a Christian.

There is a problem here: all of the experiments on FITD are to do with helpfulness. They demonstrate that people are likely to behave a certain way as a result of this compliance tactic. In my title, I suggested that Christian schools use this as a method of indoctrination, which concerns belief. And clearly there’s a gap between belief and behaviour.

If that’s what you’re thinking, you’d be right. But there’s evidence that our behaviour informs our beliefs, and that’s what I’ll be addressing next.

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