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 those kinds of acts are influenced by people’s 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 turns otherwise “normal” people into people who do monstrous things.
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 viral or cancerous. Where this gets really problematic is that it makes noncombatants fair game in order to decrease future risk of harm, as they are likely to be “infected.”
There’s a clear example of this mindset in 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.
The authors of this journal paper differentiated between genocide and mass slaughter in terms of perpetrator mindset. In a genocide, the focus is on efficiency and large numbers, while in mass slaughter, the focus is on inflicting cruelty. In genocides, individuals will often play very specific roles that may allow them to ignore the horror of the end result, while in mass slaughter, it’s more of an all-in proposition.
Sadism is generally considered a stable personality trait that can show up in the dark tetrad of personality 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.
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, and 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.
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.
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.
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 mass violence (on a much larger scale than the Capitol insurrection), 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 have 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 Behavior, 10(4), 437-473.
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.