The Buddy System is No Buddy of MineBy Jack W. Klein May 5, 2020
The crack of a rifle during morning routine is unfortunately an all too common sound on training weekends. No, it’s not an unexpected probe from the enemy party, but rather a negligent discharge by a now-panicked trainee. This typically results in a charge for the perpetrator, their weapon being taken for testing, and training being at least momentarily derailed. In a live fire exercise, a negligent discharge could result in injury or death. The buddy system was introduced to deal with this very serious issue, but anyone involved in recruit and officer cadet training would know that it certainly hasn’t eliminated it.
Anyone who has ever completed a weapons handling test has heard of the buddy system; doctrinally, an additional layer of safety precautions. It involves a nominated person (a “buddy”) who must monitor the weapon operator when unloading, conducting a final function test, and during individual safety precautions. Part of the buddy’s responsibility is to double check the operator’s actions, hopefully picking up on whatever they may have missed. But a supposed secondary function of the buddy system is to increase operator accountability, relying on the assumption that a person is more likely to pay attention to a task if they know that someone is watching them do it. However, it is worth asking whether the buddy system is indeed doing what it what it claims to. Could the buddy system have made negligent discharges more likely to occur?
Diffusion of Responsibility
Recently, I overheard a sergeant complain to two corporals dealing with a recent negligent discharge charge. He said that it was as if the buddy system had made people less careful! In his experience, weapon operators were paying less attention during weapons checks since the introduction of buddies and were less likely to notice a round in the chamber. This got me thinking: is there a concept in social psychology that could explain how a person could become less attentive with the introduction of another person? The answer is yes, and it’s known as the diffusion of responsibility.
The diffusion of responsibility refers to the peculiar phenomena whereby people are less likely to take responsibility for something if other people are present. This was most famously exemplified in the case of Kitty Genovese, in which a whole neighbourhood ignored the screams of a woman being murdered because each bystander believed that someone else would surely act. Diffusion of responsibility occurs all the time in modern workplaces; just consider the mass email sent around the office that remains ignored, with everyone having assumed that someone else will reply. It is an established psychological fact that the introduction of additional people to a situation leads to a reduction in perceptions of responsibility.
In the same way, the introduction of a buddy can reduce perceived responsibility for the clearing of a weapon. Rather than feel an extra level of accountability, the weapon operator may pay off their own drills with the belief that their buddy will make up for their lack of attentiveness. This problem is compounded by the fact that the buddy is probably thinking the exact same thing. This combination leads to a dangerous situation in which both parties believe the other is diligently clearing the weapon, when in fact neither are. When a negligent discharge does occur, both parties are typically bewildered, unsure why the other didn’t do their job for them.
Low Target Prevalence
When conducting a buddy check, the buddy is supposed to double-check that there is not still a round in the chamber. In most cases, the chamber is clear. In fact, in the few hundred buddy checks I’ve performed, I’ve never had to stop an operator from firing a negligent discharge. Crucially, the low frequency of buddy interventions makes people less likely to notice when there actually is something amiss. In psychology this is known as the low-prevalence effect, and is likely another reason for negligent discharges.
The low-prevalence effect has been most studied among screening officers at airports. These workers spend all day searching for contraband that might only appear once in hundreds or thousands of bags. Research has found that rare objects are more often missed than common objects; this means that screening officers are less likely to detect uncommon objects (e.g. bombs, drugs) than common objects (e.g. the nail clippers you’ve attempted to smuggle aboard).The same principle applies to the buddy check too. Buddies are more likely to notice common mistakes (e.g. forgetting to perform a final function test) than uncommon events (e.g. a round in the chamber), even if that is ostensibly the whole point of the exercise.
The exact reasons for this are likely two-fold. Firstly, recruits may not be exactly sure what they’re looking for, or what a round in the chamber even looks like. When they eventually do see one, they may not know what they’re looking at. Secondly, once a soldier has performed hundreds of buddy checks without ever detecting a round in the chamber, they may mentally discount the possibility of it ever occurring. Repeated chamber-free checks lead to a feeling of “it won’t ever happen to me”, and a decrease in attentiveness. When one considers these factors, in conjunction with the diffusion of responsibility, it is little wonder that negligent discharges occur with the regularity they do.
What can be done?
Without looking at the number of negligent discharges before and after the introduction of the buddy system, it is impossible to state categorically if it has proven ineffectual or made things worse. What can be agreed upon is that the current rate of negligent discharges is far too high and that further efforts must be made to reduce them. The most radical solution would be to discontinue the buddy system entirely, thereby eliminating any diffusion of responsibility. However, it is genuinely possible that a tired soldier clearing their weapon will miss something that a buddy will not; this is the buddy system operating as it should, and it may be best to simply improve upon it. I will offer a few suggestions of how to do so, but there is no silver bullet solution.
One way in which the buddy system can increase accountability is when the buddy is someone in a position of authority, such as a higher ranked soldier. The weapon operator is now motivated to diligently clear their weapon, more eager to demonstrate correct drills (or at least wary of paying them off) in front of a superior. This suggests that more senior soldiers should act as buddies whenever possible, although the reality of a fast-paced training environment is that this cannot always occur. Another way to overcome the bystander effect is competence; as soldiers become more comfortable with the weapon, they will be less likely to fob off the task of clearing to their buddy. This only reinforces the idea that new soldiers should be given every opportunity to improve their weapons handling drills.
The low-prevalence effect may be a simpler psychological obstacle to overcome. When learning how to operate a weapon, recruits should be very clearly shown what a round in the chamber looks like. Ideally, this could occur before every blank and live firing exercise too. They should also have practice identifying problems during unloading, final function tests, and individual safety precautions. This could be incorporated into a weapons handling test in which the soldier must act as a buddy and identify any mistakes an operator has made when handling the weapon, such as failing to successfully clear a round from the chamber. In short, soldiers must be made aware of what they are looking for and given an opportunity to practice being a buddy. Using these basic psychological principles the buddy system can be revitalized and potentially deadly negligent discharges avoided.