Psychological and cultural societal origins and genocide and mass killing

Dr. Ervin Staub

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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Questions: What were the motivations of perpetrators, how did they evolve, how did inhibitions decline. What were the instigating conditions? What characteristics of cultures and societies contribute? What was the psychology of perpetrators and bystanders?

An essential source of groups turning against other groups is the human proclivity to differentiate between us and them and the tendency to devalue them.

Instigators of genocide and mass killing

These are conditions in a society or in a group's relationship to another group that have great impact on people. They give rise to psychological reactions in individuals and whole groups, and actions and events in a society or social group, that lead the group to turn against another group, often a subgroup of the society.

1. Difficult life conditions.

These include severe economic problems; great political conflicts within a society; or great, rapid social changes; and their combinations.

They have intense psychological impact. They frustrate basic needs for security, positive identity, feelings of effectiveness and control, positive connection to people and comprehension of reality.

2. Group conflict.

A. Conflict involving "vital" interests, such as need for some territory as living space. Even though these conflict have "objective" elements, such as the territory both side needs, the psychological elements (devaluation of another, fear and distrust, unfulfilled basic needs) make the conflict especially difficult to resolve.

B. Conflict between a dominant and a subordinate group in a society. Frequently, demands by the subordinate group for greater rights or more participation in society start active violence between the groups that may end in genocide or mass killing.

Conflicts between groups also tend to frustrate basic needs, certainly the need for security, but also others. Dominant groups, faced by demands from a subordinate group, often protect not only their rights and privileges, but also their world view (their comprehension of reality and of their own place in the world).

Group conflicts and difficult life conditions often join as instigators.


3. Self-interest.

At times, when another group and its members are very much devalued (see below), a superior group may engage in genocide or mass killing to advance its interest—for example, to gain territory.

Modes of need fulfillment in difficult times or in case of conflict:

A. Cooperative efforts between subgroups of society or working out and resolving conflict through negotiation and mutual concessions. This constructive mode of need fulfillment often does not happen.

B. A complex of psychological and social "processes" that often become the starting point for violence:

Individuals turning for identity and security to a group elevating this group by devaluing others.Scapegoating another group for life problems or blaming the other group for theconflict. Ideologies that offer a vision of a better life (nationalism, communism, Nazism, Hutu power and so on), but also identify enemies who must be "dealt with" (which often means in the end that they must be destroyed) in order to fulfill the ideology.

The Evolution of Destructiveness.

As a group engages in scapegoating and creates destructive ideologies, as it experiences conflict with another group and blames the other, usually the group and its members begin to take action to harm the other group and its members. However, individuals and whole groups "learn by doing." As they harm others, perpetrators and the whole society they are part of begin to change. They engage in just world thinking. This refers to the belief that the world is a just place and those who suffer must have somehow deserved their suffering. This leads to greater and greater devaluation of the victim. In the end, perpetrators come to practice moral exclusion: the exclusion of the victimized group and its members from the moral realm, from the realm of people to whom moral values and standards apply. They may also replace moral values that protect other people's welfare with other values, such as obedience to authority or loyalty to the group. As the evolution progresses, individuals change, the norms of social behavior change, and new institutions are created to serve violence (for example, paramilitary groups).

Cultural characteristics that make destructive modes of need fulfillment more likely:

Certain characteristics of a culture make it more likely that in difficult time, or in the face of group conflict, the psychological reactions and events they were described will take place.

A. Cultural devaluation: a history of devaluation of another group or subgroup of society. Such devaluation can be less intense (the other is lazy, less intelligent, and so on) or increasingly more intense (the other is manipulative, morally bad, dangerous, an enemy that intends to destroy one's own group).


When another group is strongly devalued, but still does relatively well in society—its members have good jobs, are fairly well off, and so on—it becomes an especially likely victim.

Ideology of antagonism. Sometimes two groups develop intense, mutual hostility. They see the other as their enemy, and see themselves as an enemy of the other. Being an enemy of the other becomes a part of their identity. This makes intense violence easier and more likely.

B.Overly strong respect for authority in a society. Very strong respect for authority makes it difficult for people to deal with instigating conditions. Accustomed to being led, they are more likely to turn to leaders and ideological groups. They are unlikely to oppose it when the group increasingly harms another group. They are also more likely to follow direct orders to engage in violence.

C.Monolithic (versus pluralistic) culture. The more varied are the values in a society, the more freedom to express them, the less likely is the genocidal process. People will be more likely to oppose the evolution towards genocide.

When all groups of people in a society have rights to express themselves and participate, an evolution towards genocide becomes less likely.

Democracies, especially mature ones, which are pluralistic, are unlikely to engage in genocide. 

D.A history of aggression in a society as a means of resolving conflict.

E.Unhealed wounds of a group due to past victimization or suffering.

When a group has been victimized in the past, it is essential for healing to take place. Without that, the group and its members will feel diminished and vulnerable. They will see the world as a very dangerous place. At times of difficulty or in the face of conflict, they will strongly believe that they need to protect themselves. They may engage in what they think of as necessary self-defense. But, instead, this could be the perpetration of violence on others.

The Role of Bystanders.

The passivity of bystanders greatly encourages perpetrators. It helps them believe that what they are doing is right. Unfortunately, bystanders are often passive. They often continue with business as usual, which represents a low level of complicity. Sometimes they support and help perpetrators.

Internal bystanders (members of the population) often act as if everything was normal. They participate in discrimination against victims or ignore violence against them. As a result, just like perpetrators, they change. The reasons for this passivity include that bystanders, who are members of the same society, as the perpetrators have also learned to devalue the victim group; and that it is difficult to oppose one's group, especially in difficult times. To reduce their empathy, which makes them suffer, and their feelings of guilt, bystanders often distance themselves from victims. As they change, at least some bystanders become perpetrators.

External bystanders, outside groups and other nations, also usually remain passive, continue with business as usual, or even support perpetrators. The reasons for this include that nations do not see themselves as moral agents. They use national interest as their guiding value, which they define as wealth, power and influence. Sometimes old ties to a country and a particular group in it leads some nations to supports the perpetrators—rather than the people who are being banned.

The Role of Leaders.

To an important extent, it is the inclinations of population, that is the result of the characteristics of their culture and instigators (or conditions their society or group faces) that create the possibility and likelihood of mass killing or genocide. To some degree, people select leaders who respond to their inclinations and fulfill their needs at the time.

Still, leaders and the elite of a society have an important role in shaping and influencing events. They can attempt to deal with problems in a society and conflicts between groups by peaceful means. Or they can scapegoat and offer destructive ideologies. They can use propaganda, descriptions of a group and accusations against it that intensify their negative image. They can create institutions, such as propaganda tools (media) and paramilitary groups that prepare for and serve violence. Often leaders who do this are said to do this in the service of gaining support or enhancing their power. But leaders and elites are also members of their society, impacted by life conditions and group conflict and at least in part act out of the motives and inclinations described above.

Brief notes on what should be done to reduce mass killing and genocide?

A. Halting persecution and violence.

Develop international law and international institutions.

Increase the prohibitions in international law and require intervention in the case of violence against groups of people.

Create international institutions that make action by the international community to stop violence, once it begins, more likely. These institutions need to provide early warning. However, early warning is not enough. Repeatedly, when information about impending violence was available, the international community did not respond. It is essential to create institutions that can effectively activate response by the community of nations. This requires the right institutions, within the U.N., within regional organizations, and within national governments. It also requires a change in the values of the community of nations, obviously a long term goal, but a goal that each person can in some way contribute to.

Appropriate actions include diplomatic efforts to communicate strong disapproval and describe what consequences will follow if violence continues, as well as offers of mediation and incentives to stop violence. These actions must be taken with awareness of the history of groups, their woundedness when that exists, and their culture. Such efforts must be accompanied or followed, as needed, by withholding aid, sanctions and boycotts—especially designed to affect leaders—and the use of force, if necessary.

B.The prevention of violence against groups.

1. This requires helping victim groups heal.

2. It also requires helping antagonistic groups reconcile. This is more difficult when there was more violence by one group against the other, or more mutual violence. Creating positive connections between groups, shared effort for joint goals, is one important avenue for this. Coming to understand the other's history and culture is also important. Assumptions of responsibility and expressions of regret by perpetrators (or mutually, when violence was mutual) is very helpful. Establishing the truth of what has happened, and the punishment of especially responsible perpetrators (but not revenge on a whole group) are important.

3. Socialization of children at home and in the schools. Help children heal, fulfill their basic needs, develop a positive identity and caring about others, caring that is inclusive, that goes beyond the boundaries of the group, that ideally includes all human beings. Develop critical consciousness and critical loyalty. Constructive rather than blind patriotism.

4. Economic development of a country, a region.

5. Post-conflict, creating security, so that people feel safe—which provides the conditions necessary for healing, for the building of democratic institutions and pluralism, and so on.

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