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

November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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