How soldiers interact with civilians in the battlespace can significantly influence those individuals’ perceptions of the force as a whole and the rightfulness of their mission. People also share their experiences among their families and social groups, creating a ripple effect, positive or negative, from each interaction. Aggregated across thousands of encounters throughout an area of operations over several years, soldier-civilian interactions can influence strategic outcomes, particularly – but not exclusively – in counterinsurgency operations.

We subconsciously bring a lot of mental baggage when we deploy to a foreign land, which can distort our understanding of the people we meet there and how we treat them. Although it may seem like common sense to simply be decent to the people we encounter in our operational roles, there are significant situational and psychological factors that can influence our actions towards civilians, and their interpretations of those actions.

What morality creep feels like

The stories we pass down through the generations can teach us a lot about our world and our own psychology. There are those who suggest these well-known allegories serve as a pre-scientific method of explaining universal truths.[i] The story of Jack and the Beanstalk – a widely known folktale which was passed down as an oral tradition for thousands of years before it was ever committed to paper[ii] – contains many lessons on human tribalism and the nature of morality.

These lessons can help refine our approach to building population support in the battlespace. Much can be learnt by considering, in a military context, the way we interpret Jack and the Beanstalk and the actions of its great villain – one of the most malevolent and destructive mythical characters in literary history.

I am referring, of course, to Jack.

Let us break down a version of the story published in 1890,[iii] which will be familiar to most readers. If we imagine Jack as a member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in this story, do any of his actions constitute offences under the Defence Force Discipline Act 1982 (DFDA)?[iv]

The family cow, Milky-White, stops producing milk and Jack is ordered by his mother, a superior officer for our purposes, to take the cow to market, sell it and “with the money start a shop”. Within these instructions is the clear direction that the cow must be traded for money. When Jack instead trades the cow for a quantity of beans representing dubious monetary value, he commits the offence of Disobeying a Lawful Command.[v]

The unlawful conduct extends to Jack’s family when he returns home with the beans, whereupon his mother commits the offence of Assaulting a Subordinate[vi] before sending Jack to bed without supper.

Jack awakens the next morning to discover that the beans, discarded outside the night before, have grown into a giant beanstalk stretching up to the sky. Being the only able-bodied farm hand on the property, Jack has responsibilities to which he must attend, but disregards them and instead climbs the beanstalk, committing the offence of Absence from Duty.[vii]

Once at the top of the beanstalk Jack comes upon “a great big, tall house” with “a great big, tall woman” standing outside. He convinces the woman to grant him access and provide him with breakfast. Jack is directed to hide when the woman’s husband, an ogre, enters the room.

Jack witnesses the ogre withdraw several bags of gold from a chest and count their contents. When the ogre falls asleep, Jack takes a bag of gold and absconds from the premises, committing theft.[viii] Upon reaching the top of the beanstalk, Jack throws the bag of gold over the edge, meeting the proofs for Dangerous Conduct,[ix] on the basis that a heavy bag of gold thrown from cloud height down upon a populated village constitutes a “dangerous thing” that is “likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm to another person”. Jack returns home and admits the theft to his mother, who happily accepts the bag of gold, committing the offence of Receiving.[x]

Although a bag of gold could reasonably be expected to provide better financing than the sale of a cow for a family truly intent on “starting a shop”, Jack and his mother “lived off the bag of gold for some time, but at last they came to the end of it”. A classic case of “lottery curse” all too familiar in the modern world. When Jack’s mother suggests he return to the house in the clouds in search of more treasure, she is commanding or ordering a service offence to be committed.[xi]

At the ogre’s house, Jack is confronted by the “great big, tall woman” about the previous theft. Jack makes a False Statement in Relation to Application for a Benefit,[xii] convincing the woman to allow him entry and give him breakfast. Discovering that the ogre has in his possession a hen capable of laying golden eggs, Jack commits a second theft[xiii] (and his mother a second count of Receiving)[xiv] when he steals the animal and returns home.

Mother and son, now in Possession of Property Suspected of Having Been Unlawfully Obtained,[xv] have a limitless means of passive wealth generation at their disposal. Despite this, Jack soon sets off to the ogre’s house again with intent to permanently deprive the ogre of further goods, and now with none of the poverty-related mitigations that might have applied to his earlier offending.

On this third occasion, Jack was not invited in; he “crept into the house”. This offence is not covered by the DFDA, but is accessible through Offences Based on Territory Offences,[xvi] constituting Burglary under the Criminal Code Act 1995.[xvii] After remaining undetected in the ogre’s house for some time, Jack identifies his next target, a golden harp capable of singing on command. As Jack absconds from the property with the harp in his possession, it cries out for help, alerting the ogre. Depending on legal interpretations regarding the personhood of sentient musical instruments, this may constitute Kidnapping under the Crimes Act 1900 (ACT).[xviii]

Jack flees the property with the ogre in pursuit. He drops the no-doubt terrified harp over the edge of the clouds, committing at least Common Assault,[xix] another count of Dangerous Conduct[xx] and, if the harp happens to be damaged in any way by the fall, aggravating both the kidnapping and assault charges, and adding an additional 10 years to his potential maximum sentence.

Jack reaches the bottom of the beanstalk as the ogre is beginning to climb down. Note here that the ogre is in lawful pursuit; likely intending to make a citizen’s arrest, reclaim his stolen goods, and free the harp from unlawful imprisonment. Under these circumstances Jack does not have the right of self-defence, as he can eliminate any physical risk to himself by simply ceasing to commit the crimes.[xxi] And yet Jack chops down the beanstalk without the permission of its owner, his mother, constituting Destroying or Damaging Property with Intent to Endanger the Life of Another Person.[xxii]

The ogre falls to his death, adding Murder[xxiii] to the culmination of a crime spree that would see Jack, if convicted, face cumulatively up to 91 years in prison, plus a life sentence.

In the above context, it is hard to regard Jack as the hero of a harmless children’s fable. The fact that we do instinctively see him this way on first reading the story is attributable to some fundamental human biases and our capacity for selective morality. It serves as a warning for those leading soldiers on operations.

What psychology has to do with it

There is a concept in social psychology known as the mere exposure effect. It means simply that we have a more favourable opinion of those things with which we are familiar.[xxiv] Marketers are well aware of the principle. It is why large corporations spend millions of dollars putting their logos on trucks, billboards, and other public spaces without any sales pitch or call to action – simply making their logo familiar means potential customers will have a more favourable view of their products.[xxv]

It is this mere exposure effect that partially explains why we tend to have a favourable view of fictional anti-heroes such as Walter White,[xxvi] Tony Soprano,[xxvii] and Jack, despite their immoral behaviour – we are introduced to the story through these characters and see the events from their perspective.[xxviii]

A particularly sensitive subset of the mere exposure effect is the concept of own-race bias. Research shows that people are better able to remember an unfamiliar face from within their own racial group than one from a different race.[xxix] The evidence suggests the bias occurs at a neurological level – the brain processes own-race face details differently to other-race faces – meaning simple awareness of the bias may be insufficient to counteract its effect.

Growing up in a multicultural society does not inoculate one against own-race bias either, as we might instinctively be inclined to believe. The study cited above was conducted in Malaysia, which scores 0.694 on the ethnic fractionalisation index (EFI) – meaning there is a 69 per cent chance that any two randomly selected individuals in Malaysia will belong to different ethnic groups.

Own-race bias in Malaysia is just as pronounced as in a more ethnically homogenous country, such as Australia, which scores only 0.096 on the EFI. Own-race bias means it takes us longer to build visual familiarity with people of a different race, disproportionately skewing the mere exposure effect against them.

Humans are also susceptible to the fundamental attribution error. We are inclined to attribute the negatives in our lives – be they our own wrong actions or undesirable events and outcomes – to circumstances beyond our control, while we often attribute negative events in the lives of others to their personal failures or poor character.[xxx] With time and exposure to another person, however, the fundamental attribution error diminishes.

We are more willing to excuse Jack’s crimes because we’ve been with him since the beginning of the story and the situational factors contributing to his decision to steal in the first instance are well established, weakening our innate attribution bias. The ogre, on the other hand, is introduced much later in the story and through only brief encounters, ensuring the fundamental attribution error remains in place.

Schemas are the final element influencing our perception of Jack and his actions. From early infanthood, humans are building their understanding of the nature of the world based on their experiences. The human brain organises clusters of seemingly connected information into schemas, which serve as heuristics for comprehension moving forward.[xxxi]

In Jack and the Beanstalk, although the reader has never met Jack and knows very little about him, readers do know generally that the protagonist of a story is the “good guy” and that they should support their actions. The same is true of the ogre (or giant in some versions of the story). Readers have never met an ogre, but it is well understood that ogres are mythical villains.

The schemas of protagonist-as-hero and ogre-as-villain combine to form a lens through which the reader views the action. Our schemas have a powerful impact on our interpretation of the world around us and have been shown in studies to alter test subjects’ perception of an event’s significance, and even their memory of what happened just a short time afterwards.[xxxii]

What it means for the military

The same factors impacting our view of Jack and the ogre also influence our perception of the local people in the places to which we deploy and our decision making in those environments. Data analysis from operations in Afghanistan shows a correlation between coalition-caused civilian casualties and a measurable increase in insurgent attacks in a given region.[xxxiii] Getting population support right can be as important for force protection as body armour.

A pre-deployment country brief alone cannot override our schemas regarding people of a vastly different culture. Our schemas have been formed over a lifetime of our own lived experience and our imagined “experience”. When forming schemas, our brains do not distinguish between what we have personally experienced and what we might have seen in a movie once – they give both pieces of “evidence” equal weight.

The fundamental attribution error means we may be predisposed to interpret the ambiguous actions of unfamiliar civilians in the deployed environment as malevolently motivated, while seeing the same actions by our own troops as reasonable. This can combine with the mere exposure effect and own-race bias to tend us towards a more favourable or exculpatory view of an unethical or illegal act by one of our own soldiers when we would condemn the same act if committed by “outsiders”.

Noting the emphasis on gaining the trust and support of civilian populations in our own and allies’ counterinsurgency doctrine,[1] how do we prevent our small psychological quirks from snowballing into major roadblocks?

Acknowledging a bias may not be enough to eliminate it, but it does help us know what to look for in our subordinates and ourselves. Note the normalising effect of Jack’s gradual descent into outright criminality – he began with a minor offence that might have been dealt with through the Discipline Officer Scheme and eventually escalated to kidnapping and murder.

Being along for the ride from the beginning, we the reader find ourselves carrying our yardstick for what constitutes reasonable moral behaviour alongside Jack as his crimes get more severe and less defensible. This is how “morality creep” works. By the time we recognise something is obviously wrong – a now quite wealthy Jack skulking into the giant’s house for a third time with intent to steal just for the thrill of it – we are already in too deep. Recognising the early signs that we are subject to morality creep, and taking additional tangible actions to counter it, can address the problem before it gets out of hand.

Acknowledging the problem means also recognising that the psychological and neurological factors diminishing our ability to trust and engage with a civilian population in a deployed environment are also at work in the minds of those same civilians. Some of the most effective counterinsurgency strategies hinge on building mutual trust with civilian populations through familiarity and integrated living.[2]

To respond to insurgent attacks that cause friendly force casualties by withdrawing from the civilian population, retreating behind the walls of forward operating bases, is to award the enemy a double victory. The above-cited studies demonstrate the potential long-term familiarity cost of excessive force protection measures.

What to do about it

When our soldiers have limited personal interactions with a local population, they rely on their schemas, which can include an unpredictable array of misinformation and harmful stereotypes. The civilians whose hearts and minds we hope to win are faced with the same challenge. Already on the back foot as ethnic outsiders, we can’t hope to win a civilian population over to our side if our soldiers’ faces are less familiar than the insurgents’.

It is worth noting that schemas are malleable, and every interaction we have with a civilian population is contributing, positively or negatively, to both their and our schemas. Making a conscious effort to identify the negative schemas at play in a population’s collective mindset and deliberately, demonstrably contradicting them may speed up the trust-building process.

As with any tactical skillset, proficiency and experience in this regard must be honed with training. We must acknowledge that the way we role-play civilians in training exercises – often as obnoxious, stubborn, devious troublemakers who could turn on us at any moment – builds schemas in our soldiers’ minds that they will one day take on a deployment.

If winning the will of civilians in a deployed environment is tactically important, then it should be trained in the same manner as other tactics. Just as combat training begins with individual weapon handling and gradually scales up to manoeuvring large formations in complex environments, so too should training for interaction, familiarity, and trust building with civilians in the battlespace. And as with combat training, simply telling soldiers to override their natural tendencies will not suffice, they must be trained to do so.

I do not propose that soldiers should exercise absolute trust when engaging with civilians in the operational environment. A degree of objective reasoning should be applied to all interactions. However, soldiers predisposed to a negatively biased opinion of civilians will miss genuine red flags for the overwhelming noise of their vague personal misgivings.

The challenge of gaining population support is not limited to counterinsurgency operations. There is no level of warfare at which the attitude and will of the civilian population in the warzone is irrelevant. The Ukraine conflict has reinforced lessons that should have been clear from World War II – that the will of a civilian population is bolstered, not eroded, by direct attacks upon it.

And if direct attacks won’t win over a civilian population, what good will our individual soldiers’ scepticism, suspicion, and general antipathy do? Soldiers deploy into complex human environments in which, as the studies above indicate, they may be psychologically predisposed to ascribe malicious motives to even the benign actions of local civilians. Training to overrule our natural instincts in this regard is as necessary as training to overrule our instinct to curl into a foetal position when bullets come our way.

End Notes

[1] Australian Army, 2009, LWD 3-0-1 Counterinsurgency, Department of Defence, Chap 3, Para 3.30

[2] Gant, J., 2014, One Tribe at a Time, Black Irish Entertainment LLC, New York

[i] Quine, W., 1951, The Philosophical Review Vol. 60, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, pp. 20-43, available at: (accessed 08 Oct 22)

[ii] Graça da Silva et al., 2016, Comparative Phylogenetic Analyses Uncover the Ancient Roots of Indo-European Folktales, Royal Society Publishing, London

[iii] Jacobs, J., 1890 (original), English Fairy Tales, 2011 digital edition referenced, Kinser Publishing, Missouri (US), pp. 31-36

[iv] Defence Force Discipline Act, 1982, (Cwlth)

[v] DFDA s 27

[vi] DFDA s 34

[vii] DFDA s 23

[viii] DFDA s 47C

[ix] DFDA s 36(2)

[x] DFDA s 47P

[xi] DFDA s 62

[xii] DFDA s 56

[xiii] DFDA s 47C

[xiv] DFDA s 47P

[xv] DFDA s 46

[xvi] DFDA s 61

[xvii] Criminal Code Act, 1995, (Cwlth), s 132.4

[xviii] Crimes Act, 1900, (ACT), s 38

[xix] Crimes Act s 26

[xx] DFDA s 36(2)

[xxi] Criminal Code Act s 10.4

[xxii] Crimes Act s 116(1)

[xxiii] Crimes Act s 12

[xxiv] Zajone, R., 1965, The Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure, University of Michigan, Michigan US

[xxv] Convertize Neuro-Marketing Glossary, Mere Exposure Effect, available at: (accessed 05 Oct 22)

[xxvi] Gilligan, V., 2008-2013, Breaking Bad, AMC

[xxvii] Chase, D., 1999-2007, The Sopranos, HBO

[xxviii] Keen et al., 2012, Studies in Popular Culture Vol. 34 No. 2, Rooting for the Bad Guy: Psychological Perspectives, pp. 129-148

[xxix] Wong et al., 2020, Frontiers in Psychology Vol 11, Article 208: The Own-Race Bias for Facial Recognition in Multiracial Society

[xxx] Kassin et al., 2011, Social Psychology: 8th Edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, p. 118

[xxxi] Piaget, J., 1954, The Construction of Reality in the Child, 1971 Edition cited, translated by Margaret Cook, Ballentine Books, New York, p. n10

[xxxii] Loftus et al., 1974, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour Vol 13, Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory, University of Washington, pp. 585-9

[xxxiii] Berman et al., 2018, Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, p. 125