Panick & Bloodust in Warfare: Why do humans act so irrational in groups?

In case I wasn’t clear, the “cowards” who pretend to be brave and do brave things all the while being terrified out of their pants, is everyone. And the people who aren’t scared don’t rationally look around, see all the danger, and decide to go forward anyway, the most common thing they say afterward is that they just reacted without thinking, and only later did they stop and think. The guy who sits down and thinks it out, and goes forward while fully realizing the danger is really really rare. Even guys on suicide missions like the Kamikaze were scared, they were just more scared of looking like a coward than they were of some abstract thing like death.

Unit cohesion has a huge part to do with this. A unit wwhere the poeple know each other and consider each other comrades and coutrymen are far likelier to live to fight.

Oddly, this isn’t really true. From the words of the men themselves, they’d already given themselves up for dead. They just assumed they were gonna die, so why not get some extra food and better quarters before then? It wasn’t exactly courage but a resigned appreciation of the horrendous casualties of the Japanese air force.

I thought about what I wrote and wanted to expand on it:

The concept of “unit cohesion,” although it’s more common than it once was (due to the unstoppable power of mdoern professional armies), is still central ot how militaries are organized. While not identical to morale, the two are closely related: I’d say that Cohesion is a huge part of Morale, though they can be seperated.

That’s what keeps people together and fighting. When the bullets (or arrows) are raining around you and the shells are bursting and there’s a hundred damn men out there who want to kill you and you can barely see the soldiers a hundred yards to either side - then only discipline, experience, and soldarity can keep you.

Thing is, as unit cohesions breaks down, and people flee, it tends to create holes in the lines, other units get confused or frightened, and you can get units or whole armies fleeing the field.

This creates what is known as a “rout”. When your soldiers know they’re going to lose, they will not fight to the last man. They’ll try to get away. Cohesion falls apart and they flee. It’s during a rout that the enemy can inflict the most casualties, but this requires them breaking formation and having the strength left to fight back. So it’s a risk if you can do it at all.

If the army stays and fights, the soldiers believe they will all die. (Granted they’ll kill a lot of enemies, but they generally don’t care.) If they flee, they’ve got a decent shot of surviving to surrender or fight another day.

Wouldn’t you act irrational if surrounded by stu-paths?

You would have no doubt about the answer if you ever attended a school board meeting. School boards are the classic example of stupidity, duplicity and malevolence overwhelming basically decent individuals when they form a group.

Another factor is that violent action drives away thought. One authour I read, who was the pilot of a bomber, noted that the guy flying the plane - who was busy swerving, pushing buttons, pulling on the steering column, etc - was lucky; he was busy, he had no time to think. The person to pity is the navagator or the guy in the rear tail-gun, who most of the time has nothing to do but sit there and think about how likely it is he’s gonna die.

“Not running from battle” is a standard prisoner’s dilemma. The optimal result (winning the battle and living) is achieved if no-one runs. However, if you run and the other guys don’t, they are more likely to lose the battle and die, and you are more likely to live … and of couse vice versa if they run and you don’t.

Which is precisely how we get the Flashman novels. :slight_smile:

Totally ludicrous. I’ve often stated that nobody could say what he would do in extreme and/or dangerous situations if he didn’t already have to face them in response to a number of braggarts’ statements, but this one takes the cake :rolleyes:

By the way, I remember reading once the interview of a middle rank officer (I absolutely can’t remember why this guy was interviewed, and it doesn’t matter) who had served for a long time.

What I remember is that he stated that he never had felt fear on a battlefield, and that it was a feeling unknown to him.

Since then, I always wondered if there could be people who never feel fear, for instance in the same way empathy is a totally foreign feeling for sociopaths.

You might want to look into something called game theory, especially the prisoner’s dilemma.

Without some form of punishment, it’s always in the individual’s best interest to not be brave while letting his comrades be brave.

If others are being brave, it’s safer for you not to be.
If others are not being brave, it’s still safer for you not to be.
Therefore, your dominant strategy is not to be brave. Whatever others decide to do, you’re safer not being brave.

Problem is, everyone else has that same dominant strategy. The Nash equilibrium is for everyone to run away.

Military trainers and leaders know this, only in less technical terms. Training, discipline and tactics thus aim to shift the unit from this suboptimal Nash equilibrium to an optimal one for their own side. Since the effectiveness of that effort varies, you get varied behaviors on the part of individuals and units.
You might also want to read up on the dynamics of stampedes.

Unless you’ve been threatened with maiming and death and persevered through that threat, you don’t know how you would react. What is the scariest and riskiest thing you ever willingly did, as in, go out of your way to do and persevere through?

Clairobscur:
I imagine that the genetic dispositions which result in people not feeling fear have a lesser tendency to be passed down.

The first time I ever came under fire I will admit that I very nearly shit my pants. I’m not a combat arms specialist, and I don’t think I’m particularly brave or heroic. But I can tell you I was shocked that I had enough muscular control to hold my bowels as tightly as I did. (I also didn’t think I could dive for cover as fast as I did either.) The first time I thought I’d have to shoot someone in a wartime situation I was fuckin’ scared too. (I didn’t have to shoot, thank the Heavens). Its not too easy to look at another human being and think “I might have to kill this guy”. Its an awful, awful feeling. Both times I did as I’d been trained to do, but believe me, its impossible to say whether “fight” or “flight” will kick in. (Again, I was scared out of my mind both times…I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared…hell, I thought they’d have to tell me my family they found my bodies with pants full of shit)

Everyone has balls of steel until they are faced with the prospect of being killed. I’ve met some soldiers that I thought were really freakin’ brave. (and most of them will admit to being scared shitless when bullets and bombs are flying) I’ve also seen some that were so damned scared they broke down and cried. Its not funny. Its scary, and its human nature.

Interestingly, the first time I came under fire, I wasn’t scared at all. Annoyed, yes, but not scared. (I’ve mentioned this before. Moron kid with a .22 in a tenement over by where I worked on MLK in Queens.)

I went back out into the sniper fire to get someone else to come in, because they didn’t know what was going on.

On the other hand, the time lightning hit about three-five feet from me and shook me like artillery fire… I froze from that for a good second or two.

I can tell you I’ve been in situations where other people were terrified and I wasn’t scared at all - I was more worried about what they might do and what additional trouble they could cause than about the accident or fire which had sent them into a panic. The main difference in most of those cases was training (I had it, the panicker didn’t), but I did have a coworker who’d received the same training I had and who completely lost his head in anything resembling an emergency: that particular guy’s spine simply appears to be completely untrainable.

This guy you saw interviewed could have been a combo of training, not being afraid to die (I know many people who are a lot more afraid of infirmity than of a fast death) and being from the opposite tail end of the curve as my coworker.

There was a war story I got from my grandfather (who was perfectly able to analyze and play other people’s feelings, but at the same time was as sympathetic to others as the Sun is to the worries of mayflies), about how they’d be in these tanks whose weak point was the bottom, and the scariest sight they’d see on any given day (once or twice a day, most commonly at dawn) was a red beret running away. The guys from the other side would stick their red berets into their shirts, crawl under a tank and lay a present there; then they would crawl back a little, take the beret out, stick it on and run back. Seeing a beret running back towards enemy trenches meant that someone was about to get exploded by that easter egg, with shrapnel zigging and zagging inside the tank; their artillery would start shelling soon, their snippers would be set at the trenches’ edges, waiting to shoot, so what did you do? If your tank got the egg and you hadn’t jumped, you’d be turned into mincemeat; if you did jump out, you would be vulnerable to snippers. So what he did, time and again, and time and again trying to hold his breath and bowels while cursing a blue streak, would be get down into the box, clam up and start shelling.

He came back, but many of the men in his batallion who did not got killed by eggs and many by panicking and jumping off their tanks. They had the same training, they were fighting by the same cause and for similar reasons; some guys broke after the first time an egg got laid, some broke after days of that specific nerve-wracking piece of Hell. They never knew who’d get egged (they knew someone would), they didn’t know whether someone would break and die from a bullet rather than from an egg - someone who in previous days had held.

Several possibilities. First, he might simply have been too busy. Many people get too distracted by their tasks and what they have to do to worry about death. Skill takes over, and any fear is soon forgotten. And some people simply have too much going on worrying about others to think of themselves. Given his rank, both are quite possible. And truth is, some people actually get cool under pressure.

People respond to stress differently, and differently to various kinds of stress. There are people who become extremely cool, those who become excited, and those who become terrified. (I can’t compare it anyone else, but I tend to make lightning-quick decisions when the adrenaline hits, but they tend to be the quickest, easiest thing I can think of. I get scared just fom the massive rush alone, and God help me if I got into a war, but I suppose I’d manage to do my job.)

Look at post #27. :smiley: