Some Things Psychologists Think They Know about Aggression and Violence
Clark McCauley
Professor of Psychology, Bryn Mawr College; Co-Director, Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, University of Pennsylvania; HFG grantee
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Government Is the Big Killer

The twentieth century has seen unprecedented accomplishments in killing, and government is the big killer. In a century of two world wars and many smaller ones, including civil wars, about 40 million men have died in uniform. But governments also kill non-combatants, and the total of these deaths for the twentieth century is approximately 150 million. Mao killed class enemies of the people; Stalin killed class enemies and nationalities; Hitler killed Jews and gypsies; Pol Pot killed class enemies and "non-Cambodian" minorities. To these official target groups must be added those who did not accede to state power—liberal elements, former allies, personal enemies of state leaders. The striking aspect of this killing is that it is within rather than across state boundaries: Chinese killing Chinese, Soviets killing within the U.S.S.R., Hitler killing within Germany and German-occupied territories, Pol Pot killing Cambodians.

Some cases of state killing are often hidden under the label of "ethnic conflict": Turks killing Armenians, Hutus killing Tutsi, Serbs killing Albanians. In these cases we do not have a name to hitch to the killing: no Mao, no Stalin, no Hitler, no Pol Pot. Without a name to blame, we may find it easy to ascribe the killing to "ancient enmities" of tribe or ethnic group. "Ancient enmities" implies mass hatred—most people of one group hating another group, most of one group rising up to kill the most they can of the hated group. In fact, however, mass killing typically involves relatively small groups of killers.

In Rwanda, it is estimated that only about one percent of Hutus actually participated in killing Tutsi. The Hutu elite prepared the population to accept genocide with months of radio broadcasts about Tutsi plans for domination; the killers were prepared with prioritized lists of those, Hutu as well as Tutsi, who were to be killed. The fact that the killing employed mostly low-tech weapons like machetes and clubs does not mean it was not organized. Similarly it seems likely that no more than one percent of Turks participated in killing and transporting Armenians, and no more than one percent of Serbs participated in ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

The fact that killers are a small minority in ethnic cleansing is inconsistent with ancient-enmities explanations of ethnic conflict and genocide. Mass killing involves not a mass of individuals boiling with hate or fear, but massive organization and planning. Individual hatreds make exceptions for friends and neighbors, and individual killers get tired or run out of victims. Mass killing requires prioritizing victims, transporting and supplying killers, transporting and disposal of those to be killed. Mass killing requires the industrialization of killing with the power of the state—not impulsive aggression by the many but instrumental aggression by a few.

In contrast to government killing, terrorist killing is relatively small. A terrorist group aims to bring down the state by threatening and killing those who support the state. Since World War II, only a handful of terrorist groups have succeeded in replacing the state they were fighting: in Palestine, Algeria, and South Africa; perhaps in South Vietnam and Northern Ireland. Although states have for several decades been concerned about nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks in which terrorists would kill millions, thus far terror from below has not come close to the killing accomplished by state power—terror from above.

Intergroup Violence Is Normal Group Psychology, Not Individual Pathology

The psychology of state violence is twofold. There is the psychology of leaders who plan and order the violence, and there is the psychology of those who perpetrate the violence.

It is tempting to say that anyone who can order millions of innocent people killed must be crazy. The usual specification of the craziness is psychopathy, the diagnostic category described earlier as associated with use of instrumental aggression. Unfortunately for this comfortable view of evil as distant from normality, there is no evidence that leaders such as Mao, Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot were psychopaths. Indeed, it is unlikely that a psychopath, with typically impoverished social relations, could develop the relationships and loyalties required for effective leadership. The mega-killers are normal men who devoted their lives to gaining power for themselves and for an idea that justifies killing—often an ideology of class or race advancement.

Similarly, it is tempting to say that anyone who can perpetrate violence against civilians—anyone who can kill old people, women, and children—must be a psychopath. But, as noted above, some of America's best have been capable of this kind of violence. Individual motives and individual pathology cannot explain intergroup violence; state killers and those who direct them can only be understood at the level of group psychology.

People care about groups, even groups they are not part of, like sports teams and famine victims. Research indicates that group attachments are a better predictor of political opinions than individual self-interest. White support for school desegregation, for instance, is not related to having school-age children but is related to sympathy for blacks. Voters are not asking "What's in it for me?" but "What's in it for the groups I care about?" This is what is meant by group identification: caring about what happens to a group. In positive identification, we want good things to happen to a group; in negative identification, we want bad things to happen. Theory and research from a number of perspectives can illuminate the ways in which group identification affects our behavior.

According to terror-management theory, our attachment to important cultural groups is our buffer against mortality. Humans are the only animals that know they are going to die. The human answer to mortality is participation in a group that will not die when the individual dies. Larger groups with longer histories and more glorious futures offer better reassurance against mortality, so family, ethnic, religious, and national groups offer more reassurance than neighborhood, recreational, and occupational groups. Terror-management theory answers the question of why individuals should be willing to die for their national or ethnic group: dying for a cultural group gives meaning to life and an answer to death.

TMT is an extension of group-dynamics theory in relation to the social-reality function of groups. As science is grounded in replication, so individual perceptions are validated by the agreement of others. If someone says she can see a star where I see none, I am ready to admit the star and my weak eyes when a third person says she can see the star.

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