In order to fully comprehend how and why genocide happens, it’s important to link other fields of research and create connections between valuable experiments, research, and theories. One of the most important fields that helps us understand about genocide? Psychology.
Psychology is a field that is diverse, intense, and applicable to every individual on this earth. It is the study of the human mind and it’s functions. A huge focus of the subject is how the human mind affects behaviors in specific contexts. Instead of focusing this blog on the brain functions and types of common behaviors, the focus will be on psychological experiments that emphasize the victim/perpetrator relationship with underlying tones of power and control. Both the Milgram and Zimbardo Experiments from the book, “Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction” in the 10th chapter, Psychological Perspectives, written by Adam Jones, will be explored.
The Milgram Experiments
Created and conducted by Stanley Milgram beginning in the early 1960s, this experiment is one of the most famous psychological studies. This involved a series of mild-mannered and agreeable middle-aged men who were placed on one side of a wall along with a designated subject on the other. The subject was in charge of giving shocks of increasing voltage to the man (ranged from 15 to 450 volts). The subject received a shock of 45 volts to see the power they were administering. The subject asked questions to the man and incorrect answers by the man were followed by shocks from an authority figure. As the volts increased, the man was banging in protest and screaming, but the shocks continued. Out of the 40 subjects, 26 continued to the end and obeyed all orders of the authority figure until the end.
So what happened?
Many of the subjects were told they had no choice, avoided the consequences of their actions by turning their heads in the opposite direction, and displaying tension and stress. Sound familiar?
These ordinary people were performing acts that caused pain to another innocent individual because an authority figure told them to. Even when they knew they were caused tremendous pain, very few people had the resources and courage to resist authority. This is extremely similar to how people in power convince individuals to become perpetrators in genocides. The process of rationalization by authority figures allows for inhumane and harmful behavior to be present.
The Zimbardo Experiments
In an psychology experiment conducted by a Stanford University team under Phillip Zimbardo in 1971, volunteers were divided into a random selection of prisoners and prison guards. Both sides were given symbolic trappings of their position (shaven heads for prisoners, dark sunglasses for guards). Each side could not address the other by name. It began by the guards humiliating the prisoners and stripping them of their dignity. The differentiation of power took control, and the guards treated the prisoners without humanity. They forced them to defecate in buckets, clean toilets with their hands, and forced them to sing chant songs. The longer the experiment went on, the more comfortable the guards felt treating the prisoners in a non-humane manner.
So what happened?
Within the study, three different types of guard behavior were apparent: the cruel and dominating guard, the tough but fair guard, and the good guards. The study only lasted a few days because it had to end early due to health and psychological concerns, but it would have been important to see how many of the good guards and fair but tough guards would have held out throughout the entire experiment.
The boys were given intense power over someone who was powerless, and they were made to seem as inhumane through humiliating acts.
So what do these tell us? These experiments that focus on human psychology and behavior in the form of victim/perpetrator and power/powerless explain how easily people can be influenced by authoritative figures. It demonstrates how people in power versus those with less power are more likely to see them in a hierarchy of humanity; those with no power are not seen as human.
It’s extremely important to continue studying and researching influential psychological experiments such as these to better understand genocide and prevent inhumane treatment from occurring. We must establish and create connections with different fields to better comprehend what we humans are capable of able to prevent.