Psychological Factors


“I have often heard people explain a person’s violence by saying, ‘He must just be evil….’ But moral and legal judgements about violent behaviour that deem it ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or ‘guilty’ are value judgements about it, not explanations of it”.

James Gilligan


Indeed, viewing the perpetrators as “monsters” is comforting as it helps maintain a safe distance between us and them. Much psychological literature on violence, however, breaks this distance down, pointing out that many perpetrators are quite ordinary. Some of the most well-known studies in social psychology — Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies and Phillip Zimbardo’s prison experiments, for example, have pointed out that ordinary people in the right situation can commit evil. Studies on torturers point to the same conclusion, emphasizing that those who selected people for training rejected anyone identified as having sadistic tendences as they were deemed uncontrollable (Zimbardo in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, 2004: 44). However, a look through history at the incidences of mass atrocities also illustrates this if we care to look. When thousands participate in brutality, they cannot all be “crazy”.

The Deprivation of Basic Human Needs

Among psychologists, the work of Ervin Staub stands out as it seeks to look at the interaction between individual personalities and the larger societal situation. Staub,  a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and founder of a psychology concentration in peace and violence, has focused his career on understanding the two extremes of human nature — our capacity to protect others, even at our own expense, and our capacity to commit atrocities. In his studies of genocide, Staub points to the impact of difficult life conditions, such as severe economic problems, political conflict, or rapid societal change, that can threaten some of our most basic human needs, including the need to feel secure and have reasonable control over what is essential to us, the need for a positive identity, the need for connections to others, and the need to have an understanding of our world and our place within it.

These psychological needs press for fulfillment, and, if we cannot find constructive ways to do so, we turn to destructive ones. Shifting to a greater identification with a group (individuals, as we know, will do things in groups that they would never do as individuals), devaluing an “other”, and creating or accepting a destructive ideology can satisfy these psychological needs, but such steps open up a road towards extreme violence. Staub emphasizes that such responses are ordinary human ones, but more likely in a cultural environment that devalues other groups, is monolithic in outlook, strongly embraces authority, has unhealed wounds from past victimization or societal traumas (a defeat in war, for example, is usually very traumatic for a society), and a self-concept of either superiority or vulnerability. And, while the societal processes are deemed by Staub to be more powerful in incidences of group violence, certain individual personality characteristics do make it more likely for some to choose destructive means to meet their unmet psychological needs; among them, drawing from other psychological literature on the causes of violence, he identifies such factors as an earlier frustration of basic needs, perhaps from being a victim of previous violence, problems with self-esteem (both high, but unstable, and low self-esteem have been identified as problematic), being strongly authority-oriented or fearful, and devaluing others. (To read some of his work on violence, visit  Ervin Staub’s website which makes available many of his published articles.)

Shame and Humiliation

Staub’s work on the cultural and individual characteristics that encourage violence can be related to the insightful work of James Gilligan, who,  as a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, directed the mental health and violence prevention services in the Massachusetts prison system. His work with prisoners led him to focus on the role of shame and humiliation, which are common emotional responses to unmet psychological needs and most likely to stimulate aggression and violence. Indeed, for Gilligan, shame is a necessary, but not sufficent, cause of violence. In other words, it is always present in violent behaviour and can operate at both an individual and collective or societal level.

For Gilligan, “all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice” (1997: 11). Deep feelings of shame and humiliation create extremely narcissistic individuals, obsessed with their own self-worth and the avoidance of future indignities, and unable to feel guilt, empathy or develop positive connections with others. One’s self-worth can be lifted through convincing oneself that others are weak, failures, and losers, and violence itself becomes a way to shift the shame on the victim (as violence is the most shaming of human acts; consider that it is typically the victim and not the perpetrator who feels humiliated by violence). The victim’s fear and vulnerability confirms the perpetrator’s power and strength, and, at least until the next perceived humiliation, the perpetrator feels strong. (For an interesting discussion of Gilligan’s ideas and their lessons for education, see our video in the Conference 2011 page.)   

Devaluing Others

Both these authors emphasize the danger of devaluing others. Indeed, one cannot commit serious violence against someone we consider as an equal. An act of violence, as many have noted, is an attempt to acquire power over someone. Unfortunately, the basis for “othering” appears rooted in human nature – an innate stranger anxiety which programs us to react with fear and anxiety to the strange and unfamiliar emerges at 7-8 months (significantly, it is apparently specific to male strangers) (Duntley and Buss in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, 2004: 109).  This is seen as the biological basis for dividing people into “us” and “them”.  While this does not necessarily lead to devaluing others, it is the foundation and some have suggested that as much as  80% of the population in western democracies display subtle forms of bias against others (Fiske in The Social Psychology of Good and Evil, 2004: 127).  This tendency is also very easy to manipulate as shown by the well-known experiment conducted by Jane Elliott in her grade 3 classroom (watch the award-winning documentary, A Class Divided, at PBS Frontline by clicking here ).  Or, consider that for 9-months preceding the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide, the population was subjected day-in and day-out to radio broadcasts that stressed that Tutsis were inyenzi or “cockroaches” which needed to be exterminated.

Thus, us-them thinking is easily manipulable and biologically-rooted; however, there is room of optimism. Socialization works both ways. An exposure to strangers from a different group typically activates a part of our brain, the amygdala, that plays a key role in fear and aggression. Recent studies, however, have shown that when people are subtly biased beforehand to think of a different group of people as individuals, the amygdala does not budge (Sapolsky in The Compassionate Instinct, 2010).

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