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Why humans are cruel

A psychologist explains why humans are so terrible to each other.

Buchenwald Concentration Camp Memorial Prepares For Obama Visit
The grounds of the former Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Why are human beings so cruel to each other? And how do we justify acts of sheer inhumanity?

The conventional explanation is that people are able to do terrible things to other people only after having dehumanized them. In the case of the Holocaust, for example, Germans were willing to exterminate millions of Jews in part because Nazi ideology taught them to think of Jews as subhuman, as objects without the right to freedom, dignity, or even life itself.

Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, thinks this explanation of human cruelty is, at best, incomplete. I spoke to him about why he thinks its wrong to assume cruelty comes from dehumanization — and about his grim conclusion that almost anyone is capable of committing staggering atrocities under the right circumstances.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Can you sum up your argument about the roots of human cruelty?

Paul Bloom

A lot of people blame cruelty on dehumanization. They say that when you fail to appreciate the humanity of other people, that’s where genocide and slavery and all sorts of evils come from. I don’t think that’s entirely wrong. I think a lot of real awful things we do to other people arise from the fact that we don't see them as people.

But the argument I make in my New Yorker article is that it’s incomplete. A lot of the cruelty we do to one another, the real savage, rotten terrible things we do to one another, are in fact because we recognize the humanity of the other person.

We see other people as blameworthy, as morally responsible, as themselves cruel, as not giving us what we deserve, as taking more than they deserve. And so we treat them horribly precisely because we see them as moral human beings.

Sean Illing

I’ve always thought a campaign of genocide or slavery requires two things — an ideology that dehumanizes the victims and a massive bureaucracy.

Paul Bloom

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. I disagree that those things are “required.” I think a lot of mass killings unfold the way you described it: People do it because they don’t believe they’re killing people. This is what some call instrumental violence, where there’s some end they want to achieve, and people are in the way, so they don’t think of them as people.

This is obviously what happened in the Nazi concentration camps. People were reduced to machines, treated like animals for labor. But a lot of what goes on in concentration camps is degrading and humiliating, and it’s about torturing people because you think they deserve it. It’s about the pleasure of being dominant over another person.

But if you merely thought of these people as animals, you wouldn’t get that pleasure. You can’t humiliate animals — only people. So dehumanization is real and terrible, but it’s not the whole picture.

Sean Illing

What does that say about us, about our psychology, about our susceptibility to this kind of violence?

Paul Bloom

Think about it this way: We’re all sensitive to social hierarchies and to a desire for approval and esteem. So we often fold to the social pressures of our environment. That’s not necessarily evil. I come into my job as a professor and I want to do well, I want the respect of my peers. There’s nothing wrong about that.

But our desire to do well socially can have an ugly side. If you can earn respect by helping people, that’s great. If you can earn respect by physically dominating people with aggression and violence, that’s destructive. So a lot depends on our social environment and whether it incentivizes good or bad behavior.

Sean Illing

Are our intuitions about why people do terrible things wrong? Are we too sanguine about human nature?

Paul Bloom

I think our intuitions are wrong in just about every way they can be. First, there’s this myth that people who do evil are psychopaths or sadists or monsters who are driven by the sheer pleasure of watching other people suffer. The truth is far more complicated than that.

Then there’s the myth of dehumanization, which is that everybody who does evil is making a mistake. They’re just failing to appreciate the humanity of other people, and if only we could clear up that mistake, if only we could sit them down and say, “Hey guys, those Jews, the blacks, the gays, the Muslims, they're people just like you,” then evil would disappear. I think that’s bogus.

Sean Illing

Why is that bogus?

Paul Bloom

Consider the rhetoric of white supremacy. White supremacists know about the humanity of Jews and black people and whoever else they’re discriminating against — and it terrifies them. One of their slogans is, “You will not replace us.” Think of what that means. That’s not what you chant if you thought they were roaches or subhuman. That’s what you chant at people you’re really worried about, people who you think are a threat to your status and way of life.

Sean Illing

So cruelty isn’t an accident or an aberration, but something central to who and what we are?

Paul Bloom

It’s many things, and I don’t think there’s ever going to be a magic bullet theory of cruelty. I think some cruelty is born of dehumanization. I think some cruelty is born out of a loss of control. I think some cruelty is born out of an instrumental desire to get something you want — sex, money, power, whatever.

I think a lot of cruelty is born out of a normal and natural appreciation of the humanity of others, which then connects with certain important psychological appetites we have, like an appetite to punish those we think have done wrong. I think that, for the most part, people who do terrible things are just like us. They’ve just gone astray in certain specific ways.

Sean Illing

I tend to think of human beings as more malleable than we’d like to believe. Under the right conditions, is anyone capable of almost anything?

Paul Bloom

Wow, that’s an interesting question. I sort of believe that. I think, under the right conditions, most of us are capable of doing terrible things. There may be exceptions. But we’ve seen, both in laboratory conditions and real-world circumstances, that people can be manipulated into doing terrible things, and while there are some people who will say, “No, I won’t do that,” they tend to be a minority.

Again, I think the banal answer is that we’re swayed by social circumstances in ways that might be good or bad. You and I would be completely different people if we lived in a maximum security prison, because we’d have to adapt. There are powerful individual differences that matter, though. People can transcend their conditions, but it’s rarer than we’d like to believe.

Sean Illing

I ask because I used to study totalitarian ideologies as a political theorist, and I spent a lot of time thinking about Nazi Germany and how an entire society could be led into a moral abyss like that. People look at that moment of insanity and say to themselves, “I could never have participated in that.” But I don’t think it’s that simple at all. I think almost any of us could have participated in that, and that’s an ugly truth.

Paul Bloom

I think you're right. We have this horrible tendency to overestimate the extent to which we're the moral standouts, we're the brave ones. This has some nasty social consequences. There was a great article that came out in the Washington Post last week about people who say, “I'm confused about the people who have been sexually assaulted, because if it happened to me, I would say no way, and I would put the person in their place, and I would speak out.”

This attitude is oftentimes scorn towards people who get harassed. They’re somehow morally weak, or maybe they’re just not telling the truth.

It turns out that one of my colleagues, Marianne LaFrance, did a study a while ago in which they asked a group of people, “How would you feel if you had a job interview and someone asked you these really sexist, ugly questions?”

Just about everybody says, “I would walk out. I would give the person hell,” and so on. Then they did it. They did fake interviews where people thought they were being interviewed, and people asked the sexist, ugly questions, and all of the women were just silent.

The point is that we don’t behave in stressful situations the way we think we would or the way we would like to. So yeah, if you and I were in Nazi Germany, we’d like to think we’d be the righteous ones, we’d be the heroes. But we might just be regular old Nazis.

Sean Illing

If your thesis is right, then it’s foolish to think we can get rid of cruelty if only we got rid of those noxious ideologies that justify it. In the end, it’s about us, not our ideas.

Paul Bloom

I think there are all sorts of ways we can become better people, and I think we are becoming better people. But if I’m right, there’s nothing simple about this. Acknowledging other people’s humanity won’t solve our problems.

Ultimately, we need better ideas, better ideologies. We need a culture less obsessed with power and honor and more concerned with mindfulness and dignity. That’s the best we can do to quell our appetites for dominance and punishment. Am I optimistic that we can do this? Yeah, I am. But it won’t be easy.

This article was originally published on December 14, 2017.

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