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Motives Influence Behavior

For the sake of ending genocide let’s look at all of humanity with open minds and forgiving hearts. Let’s forget about the destruction it’s caused for a moment and look at life from a different perspective. We all have creeds and codes that we live by that have been ingrained in us for better or for worse. Sometimes people make decisions without realizing the full impact of their choices. Sometimes people make decisions because it’s the way they’ve learned to do things from their family, friends, peers, etc. Sometimes people make decisions because they’re protecting themselves and/or their families. If you listen to peoples stories, consider the struggles they’ve endured, the way they were raised, and the environments they grew up in, you’ll realize that most people mean well. There are definitely people out there that make decisions without caring about how their actions affect anyone else, but let’s give them a chance to learn better now.

In the streets and in prison people die over their word. If you don’t do something that you say you’re going to do, you can get killed or hurt for it. Sometimes the lives of family members are threatened. Your word is your bond and so you better be prepared for the repercussions of you actions if you don’t follow through with your word.

Prisons are corrupt. Not everyone in or working for the prison industry is corrupt, but overall the system is broken. The prison environment is supposed to rehabilitate those in them so that they don’t want to come back and as a way to prevent future crime. Prison is not supposed to be a vacation but it’s not supposed to have inhumane conditions either. People are going to do what they can and think is right as a way to survive.

When the baby daddy was in prison, I used to bring stuff in there that I wasn’t supposed to. At the time I didn’t think it was morally wrong to do because I wanted to make him happy. As time went on I put more thought into it and decided I didn’t want to do it anymore, because how stupid is that if both mommy and daddy are in jail. This caused some fights; he was already used to me bringing it in and made plans with other people. In my mind the kids were more important and I just couldn’t do it anymore. In his mind he was trying to survive and me saying no meant I didn’t love him. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized I added to the cycle of corruption going on in the prisons. Now I have to do what I can to help fix it.

From the first time I learned about war and saw it on TV I decided I didn’t like it. I was 3 years old and that has stuck with me ever since so it’s going to be very hard for me to change my mind about it. If my life or a family member’s life was threatened over it I might feel forced to change my course of action, but I still wouldn’t like the idea of war.

Ending genocide starts at home. If we can’t be honest with ourselves about our own mistakes and how they’ve affected the world then how can we expect other people to?

"We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do."

 Margaret MacMillan

Sociological Phenomenon

Genocide is a sociological phenomenon that has been happening for centuries, not only in America but also around the world. Although it’s been happening for a long time, the study of genocide is still fairly new. Sociology and psychology had already been around as academic disciplines, but it wasn’t until after Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1944 that there were formal studies on it. After the Holocaust, several scholars in different fields such as history, sociology, psychology, and political science as well as human rights groups and peace activists have made efforts to understanding the root causes to genocide.

It takes more than one or two people to kill, injure, or abuse thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people. On a macro-level, there are political, governmental, and economical factors that have historically influenced us over time. There are high-level perpetrators that have structured the ideologies and polices behind genocidal practices and the middleman bureaucrats that have made them possible. On a micro-level, there are the lower level perpetrators such as soldiers, police, other militia, and citizens that have engaged in them. While most of us probably won’t, and hopefully won’t, engage in genocidal practices, it’s important to understand that we all have the capacity to behave sadistically towards others. On the other end, we all have the capacity to be behave humanely. Understanding the psychological aspects of genocidal behavior gives us reasoning to how humans can commit to becoming malicious towards one another and what we can do to promote moral behavior.


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge, 2017.

"The real problem is in the hearts and minds of men. It is not a problem of physics but of ethics."

 Albert Einstein

Introduction to Psychological Motives

The general consensus amongst many psychologists and philosophers is that humans start off neutral without any predispositions. Essentially, we are products of our environments and experiences, so our thoughts, feelings, and behavior reflect our socialization. Others hold the view that we have predispositions to be good. This is common in many religious views as well; that humans are intrinsically good and must be protected from evil. Some are more pessimistic and believe that humans are naturally evil.

Evolutionary Psychology (EP), which is a newer field, argues that humans do not start off neutral and that we have many psychological mechanisms that have evolved over time. EP says that the psychological tendencies are what motivate much of our behavior.

Many agree that humans have collective nature, meaning we are prone to lose our individuality in group settings. Sigmund Freud, known for psychoanalysis, said that in groups individuals tend to lose their own opinions and don’t control their feelings or instincts, acting in ways that surprise them. Reinhold Niebuhr, author of Moral Man and Immoral Society, says individuals are capable of goodness and morality but groups are inherently selfish and uncaring. Robert Zajonc, a social psychologist, says groups have the capacity to unleash our worst impulses. Overall group dynamics influence thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals within groups.

Four psychological elements that motivate genocidal behavior are narcissism, greed, fear, and humiliation. This can lead groups to the process of dehumanization and becoming violent or abusive towards one another. One group sees the other group as being “less than human” as a way to justify their actions. 


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge, 2017.

Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007.  

Motivation Behind Genocide


An individual has a distorted sense of importance of self. One feels the need to be validated by others and if not then it undermines the self. There is a lack of empathy for others. Human destruction is insignificant if it will increase their personal power and glory.

A group feels grandiose or innately superior to another group. They may think they were chosen by God or destiny. They feel entitled and will rarely accept responsibility for their actions. Arrogance combined with rage can lead to anti-social behavior along with covering up criminal activity.


Intense desire for power, domination, and prestige. If there is an opportunity to strip victims of their wealth and property they will do so. There are acts of looting personal items and property, illegally taking land and selling it to others, or stealing livestock and cattle. Some see it as a chance for social mobility if they are living in harsh conditions. Once greed is fed one feels validated and successful.


Two aspects of fear are mortal terror and existential dread. Mortal terror is an animalistic response to a perceived threat to one’s physical survival and integrity. Existential dread stimulates feelings of shame, anxiety, or dishonor.

Perpetrators that refuse to kill or protesting the killing of others are usually at risk for being killed themselves so they resort to peer pressure. They may also fear being rejected by the group and becoming ostracized by society; they would rather kill or abuse others than to feel shame and lose respect from their peers. This also leads them to believing others are subhuman; many resort to mutilation of body parts even after others have died because their bodies still resemble the living.


This is the primary force of violent behavior. It is the lowering of a person or group that damages or strips away their pride and honor. It involves feelings of shame, disgrace, and helplessness in the face of abuse at the hands of a stronger party.

James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who has done extensive research amongst convicts in US prisons, says the basic psychological motive of violent behavior is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation. It can become too painful, intolerable, and overwhelming and so one would rather replace it with the feeling of pride.


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge, 2017.

Obedience to Authority

Another psychological aspect of genocide is obedience to authority. There were many perpetrators that were ordinary, everyday citizens that didn’t have negative motives behind genocide. It was their “good” conscience that urged them to follow orders of their superiors. They did their jobs without question because they were used to submitting to authority without giving it much thought. They were not sadistic in any sense and actually quite normal.

The Milgram Experiment by Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist, was an experimental study on obedience to authority. The experiment was done to see how far ordinary Americans would go in inflicting serious harm on a stranger if they were told to do so by an authority figure. There were pairs of test subjects, the teacher and the learner. The teacher was asked to administer electric shocks to the student if questions were answered incorrectly. Throughout the experiment, an authority figure would tell the teachers to:

  • Please continue

  • Please go on

  • The experiment requires that you continue

  • It is absolutely essential that you continue

  • You have no other choice, you must go on

The experiment was only terminated if the teacher refused to obey authority after the fourth time. 26 out of 40 (65%) of the teachers obeyed the authority figure’s orders and steadily increased the magnitude of voltage, up to 450 volts of life threatening punishment.

While the actual experiment is not comparable to acts of genocide, the psychological processes behind the two are.


Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge, 2017.

Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007.  

Psychological Construction of Other

As a way to exclude the victims from morality, the perpetrators see them as objects of their actions. They create a psychological construction of the “other” with three central components - us vs. them thinking, moral disengagement, and blaming the victim.

It’s human nature to form into groups, differentiate our group from others, and even favor those in our groups. Two psychological adaptations that underlie the us vs. them thinking are ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to see one’s own group as superior to another and as the “right” one. One’s own group is the center of everything and other groups are scaled in reference to it. This tends to happen early in life; around the age 6 or 7 children usually have a strong preference for their own nationality. By defining what is one’s group it also requires defining what is not. Once one forms a bond with their group outsiders can become excluded. Xenophobia is the tendency to fear outsiders or strangers. Groups tend to have xenophobic group loyalty. These social instincts are what primes us for an us vs. them thinking. It won’t necessarily lead us to hate other groups, social exclusion, or even genocide. It is the societal level of government, propaganda, the military, etc. that can evoke our capacities for ethnocentrism and xenophobia which at an extreme can lead to genocide.

Peter Singer, a philosopher, says that each of us has a “moral circle” of what we consider to be worthy of moral consideration. In times of fear, hatred, and ignorance the moral circle constricts rapidly and the victim moves from person to nonperson. The perpetrator believes not only that it is right to harm the victim, but that it would be wrong not to. The victim moves outside of the perpetrators circle of moral obligation. Albert Andura, a social psychologist, says people tend to refrain from behaving in ways that would violate their moral standards because it would bring self-condemnation, but moral standards don’t operate unless activated.

Moral disengagement has three necessary practices that the perpetrator does to make their behavior acceptable - moral justification, dehumanization of victims, and euphemistic labeling of evil actions. Perpetrators will engage in genocidal behavior once they have justified the morality of their actions. They see it as socially acceptable, justifying that they must protect their community, fight ruthless oppressors, and even preserve peace and stability. In cases of genocide, dehumanization of victims requires categorizing a group as subhuman creatures (such as animals) or unhuman creatures (such as demons or monsters). This usually happens when the target group is seen as belonging to a distinct racial, ethnic, religious, social or political group that the perpetrator sees as inferior or threatening. They deprive the victims of their identity and then exclude them the community of being human. With euphemistic labeling of evil actions, perpetrators use more neutral language to make their evil respectable. A soldier might say they “waste” people rather than using the term kill or bombing missions might be described as “servicing the target”. In the Holocaust, the Nazi’s used the words “final solution” and in the Rwandan genocide it was called “bush clearing”.  Perpetrators don’t literally believe the euphemistic labels, but it gives them permission for their behavior.

There is a general tendency to assume that victims deserve and should be blamed for their fate. Perpetrators see the victims of having earned their suffering from their actions or character. It’s easier to blame the victim when one is frustrated because it’s convenient to blame someone else than to confront one’s own frustration. Victims are often seen as scapegoats, and scapegoating offers false understanding to the cause of one’s problems. Perpetrators see their actions against the scapegoat as a solution to their problems. 


Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007.  

Magic Tree Killing Fields

Social Construction of Cruelty

Overall social psychologists believe actual current social situations are more significant than personality factors; personality only gives forecasts based on similar situations. Perpetrators of genocide are created by their immediate social context, which is what makes them believe they are capable of their behavior. Three features of social construction of cruelty are professional socialization, group identification, and binding factors of the group.

​Most people believe that military or similar forces are legitimate; the process of professional socialization reinforces this. Anyone new will typically have to learn which behaviors are appropriate or not in the organization. Even cruel behavior can be socialized and most people can easily slip into roles that society offers.

​Group identification can be intensified by two mechanisms, repression of conscience and rational self-interest. Repression of conscience is when outside values are excluded and inside values overrule which can happen in several stages. For example, the agenda of the perpetrators must be hidden from those who aren’t participating in it and whomever did know had to participate. The process of repression is continuous and has a desensitizing effect on the perpetrator. At first it may be shocking for them to behave cruelly towards others, but after a while it becomes routine. Desensitization is what allows someone ordinary to commit atrocities in excess. Group identification can shape the perpetrators’ self-interest. For example, affiliations with military organizations can feed one ego or enhance their self-esteem.

​Binding factors of the group refers to pressures of group dynamics to stay within the group. Conformity to peer pressure is what helps the perpetrator to cope with their involvement in genocide. People are more prone to help kin than non-kin, which is also a factor. Lastly, gender plays a role. Many examples of the violence in genocide are by men, which imply women may not have an equal capacity to men for violence. However, some newer research argues that women may not have had an equal opportunity to perpetrate violence. But gender stereotypes can restrict interpretation because people tend to see women as innocent by nature, which can undermine their acts of cruelty.

​It’s important to remember that ordinary people will do acts of brutality because of where they are, not who they are. Social context can trigger our capacity to behave sadistically. Understanding how one can commit to becoming malicious does not excuse or condone it in any way; it just gives us reasoning to why and how it happens.


​Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007.  

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Complexity of Genocide

Genocide is complex because there isn’t one single factor that attributes to why a group of people can so willingly destroy another group of people. On one end, we have the societal influences and then on the other end there are the personal motives of narcissism, greed, fear, and humiliation. There’s also the psychological aspect of obedience to authority. Then there’s the issue of morality and how perpetrators believe in their minds that their behavior is not only acceptable, but would be wrong not to do so.

So, what does this mean for humanity? Will society change? Are we naturally selfish and greedy? Can we change our morals and beliefs?

It doesn’t matter whether we start off neutral, good, bad, or even if we have psychological mechanisms that have evolved with us over time. It doesn’t matter if we are naturally selfish and greedy. What we do know is that our environment plays a big part in shaping us and so we should all learn to be more concerned in the welfare of others. We should strive to become more selfless, caring, giving, and loving. We can change our morals and beliefs. This is what will benefit humanity now and in the future.

If we’re not directly affected by the violence of genocide it might hard to see why we should even bother, but continuing to let thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people get killed, injured, or abused would be selfish on our part. Genocide has been happening for centuries and it’s had lasting effects on us today. It might be hard to see how we can even make changes when there are people who have political and governmental power over us. But we can’t be so willing to submit to authority and assume that they have our best interest at heart. We need to question them and think critically as to whether their actions are what are best for us in the long run. 

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