WE as a society have seen countless acts of violence, torture, terrorism and killing since our inception. Most of these atrocities have been carried out by political entities, law enforcement agencies and, in recent times, in the form of brutal mob killings -- by the ordinary citizen. It is traditionally believed by psychologists that an individual must bring certain internal factors such as personality traits, genetics, moral character and pathological tendencies into situations of violence in order to explain their behaviour. However, some in the field also believe that while this is important, the extent to which situational factors can guide a person's behaviour should also be appreciated.
Let us take for example the incident that took place on April 27, when 7 people were kidnapped and murdered, allegedly by Rab officials. The accused are highly trained members of an elite force and therefore it can be assumed that they had gone through extensive psychological assessment and been declared mentally stable before they were recruited. Given this assessment, what makes sane individuals commit vicious acts of murder?
According to psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, there are certain steps that lead down a slippery slope from good to evil. The first step that is taken is a mindless, small step. Extreme violence never occurs suddenly, it is a gradual process that can begin with the simple act of slapping someone. In an experiment conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram, participants did not feel particularly bad about administering an electric shock of 15 Volts on their fellow participants who gave wrong answers in a learning test. Each subsequent shock with each wrong answer was increased by 15Volts “only” -- the key word that made it easier for participants to administer up to 450 Volts of electric shocks on their peers. In Zimbardo's opinion, this experiment provided participants with an ideology to justify their beliefs for their actions.
De-humanising the victim also enables the aggressor to carry out unthinkable acts of violence. For example, thinking of the victim as animals who deserve subhuman treatment is a strategy extensively used in warfare. Semantically changing their perception of the victims and the act itself can turn an evil act into a benevolent one in the mind of the aggressor. A classic example of this can be seen in Zimbardo's own prison experiment in Stanford, which had to be shut down because the students in the role of prison guards committed unspeakable acts of violence towards those in the role of prisoners.
Self anonymity is also effective in these situations. When a person is anonymous, they are less self-conscious. Zimbardo found that participants who wore a hood or a uniform could administer the electric shocks for a longer time than those not in disguise. In the case of the 7 murders, the Rab uniform could be a reason for the perpetrators to conform to group behaviour and free themselves of individual blame.
The diffusion of personal responsibility comes with de-individuation. When there is more than one perpetrator or several by-standers during an act of violence, it is easy to assume that someone else will intervene to put an end to it. Therefore, it is easy to rid oneself of personal blame.
Unquestioned obedience to authority can also play a vital role. Turning a once benevolent leader into a dictator can cause individuals to follow orders blindly. In an experiment conducted by Hoffling et al (2006), 21 out of 22 nurses in a real institution administered what they believed to be a fatal dose of drugs to a patient on the supervising doctor's orders. In the case of the alleged Rab killings, the officers may have been following orders from a powerful authority which they followed unquestioningly, either believing in a cause or in fear.
People in positions of power, especially in this country, are rarely held accountable for their actions. The lack of law and order combined with the license to eradicate crime in whichever fashion they find suitable has given law enforcement officers an excuse to abuse this power in the worst possible ways. Extra-judicial killings in “encounters” were once praised and approved of. Loopholes in the legal system and powerful political backing can make an individual practically invincible. Therefore these social factors are currently the most dominant motivators for countless acts of unthinkable violence and these are the issues that must be addressed to bring change.
In Zimbardo's words, “That line between good and evil is permeable. Any of us can move across it.... I argue that we all have the capacity for love and evil -- to be Mother Theresa, to be Hitler or Saddam Hussein. It's the situation that brings that out.”
The writer is Sub-Editor, Features Team, The Daily Star.