What Is… the Psychology of War Atrocities

The psychology of war atrocities, including genocides and mass slaughters

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the psychology of war atrocities. This post won’t go into any details of the atrocities themselves; rather, the focus is on what contributes to people becoming perpetrators. This post is based on a comprehensive paper on the topic published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour.

Under normal conditions, violence tends to be an individual act, although of course individual acts are influenced by social history. Atrocities that are committed on a mass scale are different; they’re as much a social act as an individual act. Certain social dynamics are set up that turn otherwise “normal” people into people who do monstrous things.

Cultivating resentment and revenge

A key belief that leaders instil to promote violence is that the target group had some form of unfair advantage over the in-group in the past. Resentment becomes revenge, which then becomes a justification for violence. Along the way, a transformation happens in how the perpetrator group views the target group. The target group is often seen as a virus or cancer; this makes noncombatants fair game to decrease future risk of harm, as they are likely to be “infected.”

A clear example of this mindset is a 1915 statement made by the leader of the Turks who perpetrated the Armenian genocide. He said that there was no way to distinguish between Armenians who were guilty of revolt and those who were innocent, because “those who were innocent today might be guilty tomorrow.”

Genocide vs. mass slaughter

The authors of this journal paper differentiated between genocide and mass slaughter in terms of perpetrator mindset. Genocides are focused on efficiency and large numbers, while mass slaughters are focused on inflicting cruelty. In genocides, individuals will often play very specific roles that may allow them to ignore the horror of the end result. Mass slaughter, on the other hand, is more of an all-in proposition.

Sadism is generally considered a stable personality trait that can show up in the dark tetrad of traits that predisposes people to antisocial behaviour. However, when mass atrocities are perpetrated, sadism seems to emerge as state-dependent, meaning it appears in those particular circumstances without having been present previously. It’s actually rather frightening to think that, given the wrong circumstances, sadism could jump up out of nowhere in anyone.

Skewed values change norms

Once the violence has begun, individual personalities and social norms go straight out the window. Normal values held by individuals that would prohibit violence are replaced by values around purity and goodness in the in-group and the anticipation of a more just society once the target out-group is eliminated. This process is supported by groupthink. Ultimately, killing becomes the moral thing to do, as disgusting as that may seem. Deindividuation and cognitive deconstruction may also play a role, with people losing themselves in the group identity, and their thinking narrowing to only the present circumstances, with no awareness of consequences.

A good example of transcending individual beliefs is the genocide of Rohingya Muslims perpetrated by Buddhists in Myanmar. You wouldn’t think such horrific atrocities would ever be contemplated by anyone who’s a practicing Buddhist, but that’s the thing; they wouldn’t ever contemplate it, right up until it happens anyway.

Perceived threats from Others

One facilitating factor is that it’s very easy to stir up xenophobia in response to a perceived threat to the in-group. Those who are seen as the source of the threat become “Other” and are targeted with discrimination, hostility, and social distancing (of the non-pandemic variety). Official sanctioning can facilitate disinhibition and violence by certain individuals, and extremists start to develop greater influence. As they gain power, less extreme members of society then adapt to conform more closely to the views of the influential extremists.

Desensitization and trauma

In some cases, perpetrators become desensitized through forced violence. The combination of trauma and no way to process it leads people to emotionally shut down. They become killing machines, yet when it’s all over, they have this massive unprocessed trauma. This can be the experience of child soldiers.

Would “normal” people do that?

Some researchers argue that extraordinary violence is committed by ordinary people, some argue that there’s a natural predisposition, and others say there’s some of both. I find the lack of certainty around this interesting in and of itself, as it implies that we really have no way of knowing what we would do in the worst situation.

What’s really disturbing is how easily this seems to happen. Donald Trump is many things, but he’s not evil; however, if had he been evil and intent on large-scale violence, things could have gotten really bad. I’m not suggesting that he was leaning in that direction, but his power over his base was such that he probably could have quite easily gone down that path had he chosen to do so. It’s easy to think that mass violence only happens to “those people” in “those countries”, but it’s probably not true.

Do you think people need some kind of predisposition to carry out mass violence, or do you think it could happen to anyone given the right (wrong) circumstances?


  • Dutton, D. G., Boyanowsky, E. O., & Bond, M. H. (2005). Extreme mass homicide: From military massacre to genocide. Aggression and Violent Behavior10(4), 437-473.
The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

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Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

24 thoughts on “What Is… the Psychology of War Atrocities”

  1. Maybe people who are divorced from their own feelings and values might be more apt to become part of group-think, because they have fewer defenses. So maybe, to guard oneself, we can take time to feel our feelings, and identity and take actions that uphold our values. If we know who we are, and who we are is nonviolent, we can more quickly resist that which tends toward violence. Maybe we are compassionate by nature, but society teaches us to be competitive and greedy and combative.

    We are struggling this week with finding ways to engage in entertainment, distraction without violence; but we cannot! Every medium we try—book, movie, tv—is steeped in violence. We must look harder!

    We agree that Trump is not evil, because we do not believe in evil. Everyone has a context, just as every reader of this blog does. No one loses their humanity to “evil,” in our view. Choices that horrify us, yes. Actions that cause tragedy? Yes. The judgment “evil” just helps us explain away the very human failings you detail in this post. ❤️💕

      1. We appreciate dr. Neff’s contributions so far to our attempts to learn skills related to self-compassion. Her frequent writing partner, Chris Germer, has also provided learning. We wish we were more gentle, kinder. So we’ll keep practicing ❤️💕

  2. I think it’s hard to tell who will act such a way. In Ken Burns’ excellent, but disturbing documentary series on The Vietnam War, there’s an account of an infamous war crime committed by US soldiers where they massacred a Vietnamese village until the commander of the US helicopter support troops landed his helicopters between the US forces and the village and ordered his men to defend the villagers. So I wonder was the helicopter commander simply a better person than the troops on the ground? Or did being in a helicopter looking down on the massacre literally give him a different perspective?

    1. The paper that I looked at talked about the My Lai incident. The company commander said he had only given an order to burn the village and kill livestock, but the lieutenant on the ground said he’d gotten an order to kill people, and then ordered the company to kill everyone, although some refused orders. The Army realized things had gone sideways and sent in the helicopter to rescue civilians, with orders to fire at US soldiers if they shot at civilians. The paper’s authors speculated that losing men to booby traps and being unable to find the enemy had the soldiers so riled up that when given the opportunity to retaliate, they lost it.

    1. Whatever it is, it happens across culture, time, and geography, and by very large numbers of people united in violence. In terms of the leaders, though, I think there’s no question that there would be earlier signs of antisocial leanings.

  3. The purpose to war is to create a situation where the enemy has lost their will to continue hostilities. Some cultures believe that slaughtering civilians is just as important as the defeat of the enemy’s armed forces. That is why we have seen heavy bombing over protracted periods of time in every war since the airplane was big enough to carry a hand grenade. There is evidence that this tactic has some tradeoffs. Acts of violence against civilian populations has resulted in strengthening the resolve to continue resistance, as well. Winning the hearts and minds of your enemy starts with the manner in which you wage war and treat those you take prisoner.

    Cultures where genocide, reap and torture are part of the military persona usually end up like Japan. The dominant military force gets support from their civilian population to take whatever acts required to bring the conflict to a halt. In Japan, Americans were fine with massive firebomb raids on Tokyo, and the two nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. war is dehumanizing at best. There is no room for cultures to further taint their image through acts of violence against the civilian population.

  4. Hi, I am a targeted individual. I live in Varna, Bulgaria. Here these murderers stalk me on a religious spiritual base because they created their own faith and I dont want to follow it. They cause me a very serious disease- diabet type 1, heart disease, Behchets disease and a constant prostate and joints infection, a horrible pain. I was working several months ago and now I feel like invalid. If you want you could write me several words. I feel completely alone, the whole city stalk me . zlato_m@mail.com

  5. It is a scary thought that anyone could commit atrocities. We are strange creatures and can be full of compassion but then also capable of violence.

    I think people are more easily influenced by others in a position of power too, the whole ‘just following orders’ thing. I guess that allows the person to pass the blame/guilty feelings on to someone else.

  6. It’s definitely disturbing to contemplate. I’m tending to think it could happen to just about anybody, given the wrong circumstances, conditions, and influences. But I also think there would be exceptions to that rule, though maybe far and few between.

  7. Interesting, and chilling, post.

    I read a book by Robert Jay Lifton called Losing Reality that talked about state violence, mind control, and Totalitarianism. Lifton wrote about Trump and, like you said, how much control he had over his die-hard base.

    One part I found interesting is when Lifton mentioned that Trump may have gotten to the point of no-return where he was actually afraid of his base turning on him. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but it interested me. Almost like Trump created some kind of monster he could no longer control.

    1. I don’t know about the base turning on him, but I do wonder if he lost control on Jan. 6. Perhaps he was arrogant enough to think that when the mob showed up, Congress would choose not to certify the election, and he would stay President and all would be hunky dory.

      1. Yeah, I agree. I think his followers were tired of all the hateful rhetoric and actually wanted to take action, not just listen to him. So, yeah, he definitely lost control.

  8. In 1999, I went to Kuwait as part of a task force conducting security on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border. This was all when Saddam Hussein was still alive and in control of Iraq. Well somehow I wound up in Kuwait City for a bit and took part in this program where we worked with Kuwaiti children whose parents were still missing and unaccounted for after the invasion in 1991. Before we started we were given this briefing by this non-profit and they told us of the atrocities the Iraqis committed against the Kuwaitis as they invaded the country. They were horrible stories of rape, murder, and torture. As a young combat soldier, I couldn’t imagine taking part in anything like they described.

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