Psychological mechanisms

Most people imagine that only “monsters” or psychopaths can routinely humiliate, torture, or murder others. In fact, numerous studies in social psychology have shown how everyday, “normal” people can commit unthinkable acts caused by the step-by-step power of the situation. Many of the same mechanisms manipulated in laboratory studies have been shown to underlie the origins of human torture and slaughter (Staub, 1989).

In one study, Gibson and Haritos-Fatouros (1986) investigated the procedures used to train Greek military police to become willing torturers. They discuss such foot-in-the-door techniques as the following:

Basic training

physically brutal initiation rites
swearing allegiance to symbol of authority

Reducing sensitivity to torture

recruits endure torture and scream chants about violence and killing

Systematic desensitization and social modelling

recruits gradually exposed to prisoners (bring food)
watch veterans torture and be rewarded for torturing
participate in group beatings
eventually perform solo beatings

Discuss: what psychological mechanisms (e.g. cognitive dissonance,upward/downward social comparisons, stereotyping) are at work here? What can ordinary people do to prevent themselves from becoming complicit in harming others?

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