Psychology of Mass Killings and Genocide Research Paper

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To understand and ultimately prevent mass violence, like the Holocaust, the genocide of the Armenians, the genocide in Rwanda, the ‘autogenocide’ in Cambodia, the mass killing in Argentina and many others, the social conditions, cultural characteristics, psychological processes of groups and individuals that lead to it must be identified. Important questions and issues include: what are the motives of perpetrators, how do these motives evolve, how do inhibitions against killing decline? What are the usual starting points or instigating conditions? What characteristics of cultures and social processes contribute? What is the psychology of perpetrators and bystanders? Intense group violence is usually the outcome of an evolution: how does this take place, how do individuals and groups change along the way? 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.’ How can this tendency be mitigated? The passivity of bystanders, ranging from individuals to nations, encourages perpetrators. How can preventive responses be promoted? (The conception of origins that follows is based primarily on Staub 1989; of prevention on Staub 1999. See also Charny 1999.)

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1. Instigators of Collecti e Violence

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 of people, 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.

1.1 Difficult Life Conditions

One starting point for mass violence is difficult conditions in a society, such as severe economic problems, great political conflicts, rapid social changes, and their combinations. These have intense psychological impacts. They frustrate basic psychological needs for security, for a positive identity, for feelings of effectiveness and control, for positive connections to people, and for a comprehension of reality.

1.2 Group Conflict

One type of conflict involves ‘vital’ interests. Even though these conflicts have objective elements, such as some territory both sides need for living space, the psychological elements (the territory is part of the groups’ identity; mutual devaluation, distrust and fear; unfulfilled basic needs) make the conflict especially difficult to resolve. Another type of conflict is between dominant and subordinate groups in a society. Frequently, demands by the subordinate group for greater rights start active violence between the groups that may end in mass killing or genocide (Fein 1993).

Conflicts between groups also tend to frustrate basic human needs. Dominant groups, faced by demands from a subordinate group, often protect not only their rights and privileges, but also their security and identity, as well as their comprehension of reality, which includes their view of the ‘right’ social arrangements. Difficult life conditions often intensify the impact of group conflict.

1.3 Self-interest

When a subgroup of society is greatly devalued (see below), a superior group may engage in mass killing to advance its interests. Mass killing or genocide of indigenous peoples has often been in part due to the desire to gain land or develop resources where these groups have lived (Hitchcock and Twedt 1997).

2. Turning Against the Other

Groups could respond to instigating conditions by cooperative efforts to improve conditions or by resolving conflict through negotiation and mutual concessions. Instead, frequently a complex of psychological and social processes arise that turn the group against another and ultimately lead to violence. Individuals turn for identity and security to a group; people elevate their group by devaluing or harming others (Tajfel 1978); they scapegoat another group for life problems or blame the other for the conflict; ideologies are adopted that offer a vision of a better life (nationalism, communism, Nazism, Hutu power in Rwanda and so on), but also identify enemies who must be ‘dealt with’ in order to fulfill the ideology.

3. The Evolution of Destructi eness

The group and its members begin to take actions that harm the other group and its members, which begins an evolution. Individuals and whole groups ‘learn by doing.’ As they harm others, perpetrators and the whole society they are part of begin to change. Just world thinking, the belief that the world is a just place and those who suffer must have somehow deserved their suffering, leads to greater devaluation of the victims. In the end, perpetrators, and even bystanders, exclude the victimized group and its members from the moral realm, the realm in which moral values and standards apply. They often replace moral values that protect other people’s welfare with values such as obedience to authority or loyalty to the group. As the evolution progresses, individuals change, the norms of group behavior change, new institutions are created to serve violence (for example, paramilitary groups).

4. Contributing Cultural Characteristics

Certain characteristics of a culture make it more likely that, in response to instigation, the psychological and social processes that initiate group violence arise.

4.1 Cultural Devaluation

One of these is a history of devaluation of another group or subgroup of society. Such devaluation can vary in intensity: the other is lazy, of limited intelligence; the other is manipulative, morally bad, dangerous, an enemy that intends to destroy one’s own group. A devalued group that does relatively well—its members have good jobs—is an especially likely victim. Sometimes two groups develop intense, mutual hostility, which has been referred to as an ideology of antagonism (Staub 1989). Seeing the other as their enemy, and themselves as an enemy of the other, becomes part of their identity. This makes group violence more likely.

4.2 Overly Strong Respect for Authority in a Society

This makes it especially difficult to deal with instigating conditions. Accustomed to being led, people 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.

4.3 Monolithic (and Autocratic) s. Pluralistic (and Democratic) Societies

The more varied are the values in a society, the greater the extent that all groups can participate in societal processes, the less likely is the evolution towards mass violence. People will be more likely to oppose harmful, violent policies and practices. Democracies (Rummel 1994), especially mature ones (Staub 1999) that are pluralistic and have a well-developed civic culture, are unlikely to engage in genocide.

4.4 Unhealed Wounds of a Group Due to Past Victimization or Suffering

Without healing from past victimization, the group and its members will feel diminished, vulnerable, and see the world as a very dangerous place. At times of difficulty or in the face of conflict, they may engage in what they think of as necessary self-defense. But, instead, this could be the perpetration of violence on others (Staub 1998).

4.5 Other Cultural Characteristics

A history of aggression as a means of resolving conflict, as well as certain group self-concepts—a sense of vulnerability, or a feeling of superiority that is frustrated by events, or the combination of the two—make violence also more likely.

5. 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. Sometimes they support and help perpetrators (Barnett 1999, Charny 1999, Staub 1989, 1999).

Internal bystanders, members of the population, often go along with or participate in discrimination, and ignore violence against victims. As a result, just like perpetrators, they change. Like the perpetrators, bystanders, as members of the same society, have also learned to devalue the victims. They are also affected by instigating conditions. It is difficult for them to oppose their group, especially in difficult times and in an authority-oriented society. To reduce their guilt, and their empathy, which makes them suffer, bystanders often distance themselves from victims. Over time, some become perpetrators.

External bystanders, outside groups, and other nations, also usually remain passive, continue with business as usual, or even support perpetrators. Nations do not see themselves as moral agents. They use national interest, defined as wealth, power, and influence, as their guiding value. When they have ties to another country, they tend to support the leaders, not a persecuted group.

6. The Role of Leaders

It is the inclinations of a population, the result of the joining of culture and instigating conditions, that to a substantial degree create the possibility and likelihood of mass murder. To some degree, the people select leaders who respond to their inclinations and fulfill their needs.

Still, leaders and the elite have an important role in shaping and influencing events. They scapegoat and offer destructive ideologies, and use propaganda to intensify negative images and hostility. They create institutions, such as media and paramilitary groups that promote or serve violence. Often such leaders are seen as acting only to gain support or enhance their power. But leaders 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.

One additional influence is a sudden shift in government, combined with ‘state failure,’ the new government failing to deal effectively with problems that face the society. An ongoing war, especially a civil war, also adds to the probability of mass killing or genocide. Economic interconnections between a country and other countries make genocide and mass killing less likely (Harff 1996, Melson 1992).

8. Halting Persecution and Violence

Once violence against a group has become intense, halting it requires action by nations and the community of nations. Early warning is important, but not enough. Usually, as in the case of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 (des Forges 1999), when information about impending violence is available, the international community does not respond. For this to change requires changes in values, and actions by citizens to bring them about. It also requires institutions to activate and execute responses by the community of nations. Interconnected institutions within the UN, regional organizations, and national governments are needed.

Appropriate actions include diplomatic efforts: to warn perpetrators, as well as to offer mediation and incentives to stop violence. Such efforts must be accompanied or followed, as needed, by withholding aid, by sanctions and boycotts—ideally designed to affect leaders and elites—and the use of force, if necessary. But early actions, especially preventive actions, are likely to reduce the need for force (Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict 1997, Staub 1999).

9. Pre enting Mass Violence

Preventive actions by bystanders or ‘third parties’ are important when conditions exist that are likely to lead to mass violence. Helping previously victimized groups heal, making sure that the truth about what happened in a case of prior collective violence is established, helping perpetrators heal—who are wounded, at the very least, by their own violent actions—reduce the likelihood of new or renewed violence. Healing furthers the possibility of reconciliation. Creating positive connections between groups, shared efforts on behalf of joint goals, help people overcome past devaluation and hostility. 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), can further healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The punishment of especially responsible perpetrators (but not revenge on a whole group) is important (Staub 1999).

In the long run, the economic development of a country can diminish the likelihood of violence. This is especially so if there is also democratization, which creates pluralism, moderates respect for authority, and lessens differences in power and privilege. The positive socialization of children, the development of inclusive caring, caring that extends beyond the group, is also essential.

10. Future Directions

This research paper has reviewed influences that lead to varied forms of mass violence. Further research ought to consider whether specific forms of violence, such as government persecution, conquest, revolution, civil war, and others, which may ultimately lead to mass killing, also have specific or unique determinants (Totten et al. 1997). Testing our capacity to predict group violence is important. So is the development of techniques to help groups heal and reconcile (Agger and Jensen 1996, Staub 2000). Creating positive bystandership by nations and nongovernmental organizations is essential for prevention. Citizen involvement is required for this. When this happens, the effects of different types of bystander behavior need to be assessed. To create a less violent world, the development of knowledge in this realm and its application has to go hand in hand.


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