All humans are capable of committing torture and other "acts of great evil". That is the unhappy conclusion drawn from an analysis of psychological studies.
Over 25,000 psychological studies involving eight million participants support this finding, say Susan Fiske and colleagues at Princeton University in New York, US.
The researchers considered the circumstances surrounding how individuals committed seemingly inexplicable acts of abuse in the midst of the US military’s torture of Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004.
"Could any average 18-year-old have tortured these prisoners? I would have to answer: ‘Yes, just about anyone could have.’", Fiske says.
Many forms of behaviour, including acts of cruelty, are influenced as much by authority figures, peer pressure and other social interactions as by the psychology of the individual, she says.
"If we don’t understand the importance of social context and accept that almost anybody could commit acts of torture under certain circumstances, then we are setting ourselves up for situations where Abu Ghraib [atrocities] will occur again," Fiske warns.
The researchers identified situations where individuals feel provoked, stressed or taunted - such as during war - as conducive to causing aggressive acts. And they say that the need to conform to their peer group and obey those in authority - or act in a way that they believe their superiors would approve of - could lead individuals to behave in a way that they would usually consider unacceptable.
"Certainly, acts of torture can be committed by almost everyone - not just psychopaths," says Ian Robbins, a clinical psychologist who has treated victims of torture and torturers themselves at the traumatic stress service in St George’s Hospital, London, UK.
"A process of ‘grooming’ occurs, whereby the perpetrator is introduced to small acts of abuse - perhaps an occasional slap - and then over time these acts of abuse are built up to levels of extreme torture," he says. "All this is carried out in a social context of acceptability, where the perpetrator is made to feel special for carrying out the abuse, and it is singled out as a special secret activity."
Fiske points out that the alienation and exclusion of certain groups renders them "contemptible, subhuman and disgusting" in the eyes of the torturer, making abuse of such dehumanised victims far easier to carry out.
And she points out that strongly cohesive social populations such as the military can either encourage prejudice - as in the case of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners - or actively discourage it. For example, the US military offers the country’s best example of racially integrated cooperation between black and white Americans, she observes.
Climate of disrespect
"Our national leadership could act to see everyone as equal and connected, or as foreigners who can be ignored and excluded. If Iraqis fought alongside the US military, it would be harder for soldiers to dehumanise Iraqi prisoners," she says.
Robbins believes the general US prejudice against other nations is deeply ingrained. "Calling Iraqi nationals ‘insurgents’, ‘ragheads’ or ‘baddies’ automatically dehumanises them and leads to a climate of disrespect," he says.
But, as the researchers note, there are always those few individuals who dissent from the group - "whistle-blowers" who alert authorities to abuse and prevent it continuing.
"People who opt out often have a strong sense of moral values or religious conviction that allows them to override their natural inclination to follow their superiors or fit in with their peer group," Robbins says. But they are few, and because under certain circumstances almost anyone can commit torture, situations that could foster an atmosphere of abuse must be controlled, he believes.
"Any processes involving locking people up and interrogation need to be open to public scrutiny and not carried out by the military in secret," he told New Scientist.
"I find it extremely frightening that the American military in the Pentagon have been discussing which kinds of torture are acceptable and which are not," he adds.
Journal reference: Science (vol 306)
vovinoiad 's addendum:
What are your thoughts and opinions on the use of torture? In which situations would you deem it "necessary", and in which situations would you be capable of torturing another human being? (Try to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of "Oh, I could NEVER do that." Think on the concept for a moment..what if one of yor loved ones was threatened, or was taken by someone? Think of a scenario in which you WOULD torture someone.)