It’s Friday night in Okinawa, Japan. Units across the island are securing for the weekend. Every commander and senior enlisted leader crosses his or her fingers, hoping to avoid the “late night phone call” that will inform them some misfortune has befallen one of their Marines.
The phone of the first unlucky battalion commander rings, and he’s told another Marine has had an alcohol-related incident. “How can this happen?” he asks himself. “We just had a battalion-wide safety brief six hours ago, and I told the Marines I trusted them to do the right thing. Every company and platoon had its own safety brief before it secured, too. Every Marine reported his or her liberty plan to leaders at the small unit level. I just don’t understand. I must be doing something wrong. How can I help these Marines ‘get it’?”
The commander furrows his brow; he plumbs his operational experience, the leadership lessons from peers and seniors, the endless hours of study at Expeditionary Warfare School and Command and Staff College. Hanging over his head is the constant pressure to do something in response to this latest leadership challenge, to turn the vision of his command philosophy into reality through action.
“I can’t just sit by and let my battalion take another one on the chin,” the commander says. “I’ve got to send a clear message that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.” He calls his executive officer and sergeant major. “Secure the battalion’s liberty, and tell everyone we’re dry until further notice. Have everyone in the base theater on Saturday at 0800; we’re doing a safety stand-down, and this time, no one’s going home until I’m satisfied that every Marine in this battalion is on the same page!”
As the news spreads across the battalion, the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Marines lose money canceling planned weekend trips; spouses find themselves spending another weekend alone; lieutenants begin the next batch of “Attritionist Letters” for submission to The Marine Corps Gazette; and young Marines start posting a flurry of “Oki-traz” memes on social media. Ultimately, small-unit leaders reflect with irony on the commander’s previous claim of giving them special trust and confidence, while hundreds of Marines who were on the fence about reenlisting put another point in the “EAS” column. Years later, policy analysts and senior leaders wonder why the sea services are having so much trouble retaining top talent.
A Leadership Tool as Old as Leadership
From the Roman Army’s practice of decimation to today’s unit-wide safety stand-downs after a liberty incident, leaders throughout history have felt compelled to levy a tax on every member of the command to re-inforce good order and discipline when one member fails to follow the rules. Today, we try to rebrand the practice, telling Marines and sailors that we are re-educating ourselves on our shared responsibility to police each other, but our people are smarter than that. When subordinates find themselves spending another weekend in a base theater being reminded, again, that an unlawful act is, indeed, unlawful, they see it for what it is: mass punishment.
The truth is that mass punishment, in this context, is ineffective and often undermines the commander’s aim of discouraging undesired behaviors. If we demystify mass punishment, it becomes clear that good order and discipline can be reinforced without undermining our efforts to build trust across the chain of command.
The Science of Mass Punishment
The central premise behind mass punishment is twofold: it will compel the targeted population to comply with the desired behavior, while encouraging the group to self-enforce norms that cultivate that desired behavior. Both these assumptions are false.
An experiment conducted by New York University’s Center for Experimental Social Science created situations in which an authority was presented with certain goals and was able to apply penalties based on the group’s conduct to compel them toward those goals. Variations on the lab trial were conducted, but two key conclusions remained constant:
- Collective punishment was counterproductive, provoking more occurrences of the undesired behavior.
- In no variation did collective punishment have a statistically significant effect on the likelihood of group members to punish one another internally to self-police or self-enforce group norms.1
Why? Regarding counterproductivity, those who are punished repeatedly for an infraction they did not commit weigh the cost and benefit of their previous compliance with the given regulation. A rational actor assumes that by “investing” the cost of compliance, he or she will enjoy a “gain” by avoiding the associated punishment. If they invest in compliance but still are punished, the investment becomes worthless. The average service member concludes, “If I’m going to be punished for it anyway, I might as well enjoy it while I can.” Cue the spike in alcohol-
related events, despite the weekend safety stand-down.
Regarding the lack of self-policing, most rational actors do not see the utility in policing or punishing individuals who are complying with a given regulation; they understand that punishing those who follow the rules is contradictory. Small-unit leaders intent on maintaining trust with their subordinates are not going to punish individuals they know are playing by the rules. Without the immediate physical proximity of the senior leader who asks for such measures, few are incentivized to follow through with a punitive task that seems irrational; obedience to apparently immoral commands diminishes as distance from the authority increases.2
A related study conducted by psychologists from the Universities of Geneva, Amsterdam, and Lausanne also concluded that mass punishment is counterproductive. More significantly, this study examined two variables related to the effects of mass punishment:
- How responsible the members of the group are for the offense committed by the offender
- The political characteristics of the group
Across six experiments and supplementary research, the study demonstrated that the less responsible group members are for any member’s given offense, the more counterproductive mass punishment becomes. That is, if members of a unit were not in a position to prevent an offender from committing the offense but were punished for it, mass punishment is counterproductive.
In addition, the more culturally democratic any given group is, the more counterproductive mass punishment becomes. Groups from democracies such as the United States tend to find mass punishment inherently unfair and contrary to national values. Because mass punishment in this context violates those values, the umbrage felt toward the policy becomes more acute.3
Social psychology experiments and research regarding mass punishment conclude with almost perfect unanimity that mass punishment is ineffective. Naval officers who use mass punishment risk the same consequences identified in these studies: continuation of the undesired behavior; unit members less inclined to follow a regulation for which they already are being unjustly punished; loss of trust among small-unit leaders for the commander imposing the mass punishment; and a likely increase in service members leaving the service over the long term.
Achieving Behavioral Change
So what are leaders to do? If we cannot hold everyone accountable for the actions of the few outliers who flaunt lawful orders and regulations, how can we achieve good order and discipline?
Increase the Likelihood of Detection
The single greatest deterrent to any undesired behavior is not the punishment but the likelihood of getting caught.4 If going five miles over the speed limit on the interstate were punishable by a $10,000 fine, but there were no highway patrols, speed cameras, or other detection mechanisms, most rational actors would continue to speed. If, however, the same offense were punishable by just a $100 fine, but detection measures were in place and advertised, most actors would drive under the speed limit.
Drinking and driving provides one illustration. Increasing the probability of apprehension for a DUI by 10 percent corresponds to a 3.5 percent decrease in drunk driving.5 Applications for naval commanders abound: gate guards can conduct outbound as well as inbound vehicle checks during historical times of peak offense, random Breathalyzers can be administered at base gates, snap sobriety checkpoints can be employed on base, and, most critically, commanders can communicate these detection measures to their Marines and sailors.
Deinstitutionalize Undesired Group Norms
Offenders act on their own volition, but group norms might have played a part in creating an environment that led that outlier to believe he or she wasn’t doing anything wrong. For example, the individual service member gets the DUI, but being part of a hard-drinking group likely contributed to that individual frequently being highly intoxicated while on liberty, increasing his or her risk of becoming an offender.
Changing group norms that contribute to infractions by individuals is more effective at eradicating undesired behaviors than punishing the entire organization.6 Analysts of collective responsibility recommend that leaders change aspects of the group that led the individual to commit the undesired act.7 For naval leaders, that could mean creating a command climate that discourages the undesired behavior, such as alcohol abuse, while offering and encouraging participation in alternative activities. The “Elevate” program on Okinawa, which provides alcohol-free events for Marines and sailors and incentivizes participation with free food in the hours preceding the expiration of liberty, is one such example.
Looking deeper, alcohol abuse presents the Navy and Marine Corps with a steep uphill battle. Our organizations put alcohol front and center in many traditions, such as the Marine Corps Ball and Mess Nights. As recruits, we are taught to “meet Whiskey Jack down by the railroad track,” and we assume a direct connection between fighting prowess and drinking stamina.
If we are serious about deinstitutionalizing a culture where drinking is synonymous with being a warfighter, we will have to take a hard look at removing alcohol from key traditions. This would be a significant application of deinstitutionalizing an undesired norm.
Develop Measures of Collective Responsibility
Democratic cultures respond positively to self-imposed measures of collective responsibility.8 If a peer group comes together and identifies its shared responsibilities, it is far more likely to adhere to those responsibilities, self-police, and accept punishment as a group when a peer fails to meet the shared expectations.
For example, if all the noncommissioned officers in a company delineate their responsibilities regarding the responsible use of alcohol, publish those responsibilities as a document, and collectively sign it, they are more likely to abide by the document’s principles, police their peers, and respond more positively to mass punishment when a fellow noncommissioned officer violates the terms of that document.
An application for commanders is to encourage peer groups—officers, noncommissioned officers, and junior enlisted—to develop peer-based “force protection agreements.” For this application to be effective, however, the affected peer group must develop the terms of the agreement without the perception of an authority’s intervention. Only if it is democratically created by the peer group to which it applies will service members be likely to follow it and reduce instances of an undesired behavior.
Set Mass Punishment Aside
Good order and discipline are a prerequisite for any effective fighting force. In our rush to stamp out misconduct, we often turn to mass punishment, but such measures generally work against us. Instead, leaders should increase the likelihood that offenders will be caught, deinstitutionalize undesired group norms, and develop measures of collective responsibility among peer groups. These are proven methods for getting an organization’s members to more consistently follow rules and regulations. When handling individual misconduct, it is more effective to apply a surgeon’s finesse than a butcher’s swing; let’s set mass punishment aside for leadership tools that work.
1. Eric S. Dickson, “On the (In)effectiveness of Collective Punishment: An Experimental Investigation.”
2. Nick Haslam, Steve Loughan, and Gina Perry, “Meta-Milgram: An Empirical Synthesis of the Obedience Experiments,” National Center for Biotechnology Information.
3. Andrea Pereira, Jacques Berent, Juan Manuel Falomir-Pichastor, Christian Staerklé, and Fabrizio Butera, “Collective Punishment Depends on Collective Responsibility and Political Organization of the Target Group,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 56 (January 2015): 4−17.
4. National Institute of Justice, “Five Things About Deterrence.”
5. Valerie Wright, “Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment,” The Sentencing Project (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2010), 1−12.
6. Kenneth Shockley, “Programming Collective Control,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 442.
7. Neta Crawford, “Individual and Collective Moral Responsibility for Systematic Military Atrocity,” Journal of Political Philosophy 15, no. 2 (2007): 212.
8. Pereira et al., “Collective Punishment,” 56.