Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


zaire-refuge

Refugee camp in Zaire, 1994. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Being Cruel Can Help You, But Let’s Find a Way to Fight It Anyway

• October 24, 2013 • 5:30 PM

Refugee camp in Zaire, 1994. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The lust to kill is somewhat normal, and cruelty can have some benefits. But the researchers who are exploring those sad discoveries are also working to bust up the vicious circle that offers these insights.

The idea that violence can beget violence in a genuinely vicious circle isn’t hard to accept. Whether tit-for-tat, Hatfield and McCoy, eye-for-eye retribution, or the desire to re-do the results of World War I that resulted in World War II, or the apparently never-ending civil wars centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, yesterday’s brutality planted the seeds for tomorrow’s.

In the two new pieces of research to come out of what might be called the “cruelty lab” at Germany’s University of Konstanz, a team that included aggression-study veterans Roland Weierstall and Thomas Elbert surveyed soldiers who fought in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s apparently never-ending civil war. The conflict, dubbed “The World’s Worst War” by The New York Times and “Africa’s world war” by many others, is reckoned by body- and atrocity-counts to be the bloodiest war since World War II.

After Weierstall and his colleagues analyzed the responses of their 95 subjects (five of them women), the researchers determined that the earlier the soldiers joined a military unit—whether voluntarily or by abduction—the more likely they were to develop an appetite for destruction. This appetite, however, did not seem to be related to how long the fighters were in combat nor how much military training they had—only when they were indoctrinated in the life of a soldier.

If this echoes the stories that circulated last year about “Kony2012,” the Lord’s Resistance Army, and violence-infected child soldiers, it is of a piece. It also echoes in the voice of Chris Hedges, a journalist who wrote the book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”

While it’s long been known that many combatants have a hard time returning to civilian life and that some drift back into violent callings, the “appetitive aggression” that these academics describe is more akin to outright cruelty. “The appetitive form of aggression is rewarding in itself,” they have written, and so not necessarily prompted by “mating, status, or access to resources.” The appetitive form is contrasted in this view with “reactive aggression,” the idea that for some reason we gotta be violent, not that we wanna be violent.

This is familiar terrain for Weierstall and Elbert, who developed a 15-question Appetitive Aggression Scale to assess this attraction to violence. They have deployed the AAS in a growing variety of settings, including among World War II vets. The researchers have determined that “even if it’s frowned upon to talk about the lust to kill, it is a common phenomenon among soldiers and a biological predisposition of men, and not a consequence of psychopathological processes.” (Their latest research appears in the journals International Journal of Behavioral Development and Conflict and Health.)

But is common the same as normal? Acknowledging that under any rubric it still might be unwelcome, they write:

Contrary to common beliefs, this subtype of aggression is not limited to a deviant minority often and misleadingly characterized as ‘‘psychopaths’’ or ‘‘sadists,’’ but rather applies to a large portion of those who were actively involved in fighting.

It may even have a benefit, at least to the beserker. In the World War II study and in others looking at Ugandan child soldiers and  perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, appetitive aggression seemed to serve as a sort of vaccine against post-traumatic stress disorder, making their psyches more resilient. While that initially flies in the face of other research that specifically linked killing in combat with higher rates of PTSD, Weierstall and company suggest that this directed cruelty is really just an alternative coping mechanism, shifting awfulness into a human’s “hunt network” instead of a “fear network.” The cure in this case may indeed be worse than the disease.

Perhaps that prophylactic shift helps describe the sometimes-delayed desire for retribution by victims of “the Germans” at the end of World War II, a cycle of violence recounted in historian Keith Lowe’s recent book about the years after V-E Day, Savage Continent.

It took several years, but Europe quieted down (major exceptions like the Balkans notwithstanding) to the point where “European” is sometimes a code word for “wimpy” in the United States. That same sort of transition, perhaps not to the wimpy extreme, drives much of Weierstall and company’s investigation:

Moral-free scientific examination of appetitive aggression and the acceptance of the findings in public seem pre-requisites for the development of adequate treatment and rehabilitation programs for successful reintegration of former perpetrators, combatants or civil offenders alike, into society.

Given the epidemic of child-soldiering around the globe, and seemingly intractable conflicts in places like Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan, there’s no shortage of places that could use an inoculation of hope.

Lowe has noted that both those who committed atrocities during wartime and those burning with revenge afterward could share certain traits: “the revulsion at the taking of human life subsided and was replaced with a perverse delight, even a euphoria, at their own breaking of moral codes. With some of these people killing became an addiction, and they carried out their atrocities in ever more perverse ways.” Learning to break that cycle would be a signal achievement both for today and tomorrow.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.