What makes children stay in the rebellion group?

The theory that explains why children stay in the rebellion groups are cognitive dissonance theory and the theory of identity and the economics of organization which seem to be a good fit for our discussion.

Cognitive dissonance theory, proposed by Leon Festinger in 19571, explains the situations in which individuals might hold two conflicting ideas, beliefs, feelings, or values. In such cases, as Festigner suggested, an individual tends to alter one of the confronting attitudes, or beliefs to reduce the discomfort and reach the sense of inner balance or equilibrium.

In our case,  the child soldiers are directly exposed to the situations of cognitive dissonance, as research shows, children are forced to kill, including their family members, and friends2.  Following the theory, we might hypothesize that children had to alter their previous beliefs and accept their new roles as the killers, and fighters, as it is the only mean of survival and adaptation to a new environment. Indeed, Beber & Blattman2 reported a change in a child’s identity in case of Uganda, where most of the children were at some point affiliated with the rebellion group, and were willing to fight and kill. Yet, we believe that the dramatic change in the identity is not coming directly from a child, but is also reinforced by the rebellion groups.

From the theory of identity and the economics of organization,  proposed  by Akerlof & Kranton 3,  we could note that the principal efforts to build a new identity within an agent might bring useful results. For instance, as explained by the theory the changes in agents’ identities allow the principal to keep the agents within the organization longer; to extract higher efforts at a low cost, and avoid monetary compensations or rewards. This theory finds support in the research conducted by  Beber & Blattman2.  In the case of Uganda, it was documented that Kony, a rebellion leader, was actively practicing ideological propaganda  and spiritual rituals within the group, that finally led to changes of children’s identities.

What is interesting to note, is the fact that the theory of the economics of labor coercion and the theory  of identity and the economics of organization are aimed to achieve quite similar outcomes. While in the first case, coercion, and sense of fear were used to make children stay in the group, and exercise higher efforts, without any incentives or reward. In the second case, identity building was aimed to achieve similar results. There is no research that shows the prevalence  of one theory over the other.  In other words, it is still unclear what makes children stay in the group, exert higher efforts, without being rewarded- coercion or change in the identities.  Perhaps, two of the theories overlap and reinforce each other, making children more likely to stay with the rebellion groups.

Why recruit children?

Why forced recruitment?

Why children do volunteer?


1 Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. New York: Harper & Row.

2 Beber, B.& Blattman, Ch. (2010). The Logic of Child Soldiering and Coercion. Unpublished working paper, Yale University

3 Akerlof, G. A., & Kranton, R. E. (2005). Identity and the economics of organizations. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1), 9-32.


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