The Psychology of Violence: Why People Kill

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By Nicole Magney, Columnist

The public often perceives lethal violence to be an action taken by troubled, immoral individuals. However, the vast majority of violent acts, including the killing of other human beings, cannot be explained by mental instability or defect. Society views soldiers’ killing of ‘the enemy’ as admirable and heroic but views lethal violence by criminals and terrorists as abhorrent and unfathomable. Despite these differences in perception, those who kill – with the minority exception of those who actually suffer from a psychological condition – have to overcome similar psychological and sociological obstacles in order to commit such violence. As such, if people wish to understand why others carry out lethal violence, starting with an examination of their own identity formation and moral framework – and the psychological and social mechanisms for overcoming killing that go along with these – would do much to advance their comprehension, particularly in the field of terrorism studies.

The majority of those who perpetrate lethal violence are ‘normal’ people.[i] Whether an individual is a terrorist, criminal, soldier, or bureaucrat, he or she must partake, often unconsciously, in a similar set of psychological and sociological mechanisms that enable lethal violence. Terrorists, soldiers, and others who commit violent acts all operate within alternate moral frameworks of group identity and participate in moral disengagement from their enemy or target. Acknowledging that all who kill go through similar processes is not a normative argument attempting to define what is moral, but is rather an observation that those who carry out lethal violence tend to believe their own actions to be moral, even if others do not.

Morality is not a fixed universal concept; it is “less of an absolute than we would like to think.”[ii] What is considered moral to one community, society, or individual, may be perceived as immoral or wrong to another. Violence committed by ‘enemies,’ is often portrayed as unthinkably immoral or inherently evil and such characterizations often mistakenly blame mental instabilities. One study of convicted Islamist terrorists cited the number who exhibited psychosis at less than one percent; this is roughly two percentage points lower than the global population.[iii] Those who commit lethal violence are not crazy, but markedly normal. Rather than enjoying violence for the sake of it, almost all perpetrators truly believe that their actions are both justified and moral.

Individual perpetrators of violence often act on behalf of communities or groups that they identify with and feel the need to protect. An important psychological step all individuals undertake throughout their lives is association with an ‘in-group’ based on ‘shared identification.’[iv] Group identity is not necessarily fixed for any given individual, but is fluid depending on the situation at hand. However, identity with a particular in-group generally results in the exclusion of members that do not belong, or are considered part of the ‘out-group.’ This constant flux of identity formation happens to all humans, and in and of itself is not an indicator that an individual will carry out any violent act. However, the potential for violence becomes increasingly plausible when in-group identity formation couples with (1) the perception of existential external danger; (2) heightened perception of the in-group as ‘uniquely virtuous;’ and (3) the characterization of violence against non-members as protecting the virtue of the in-group.[v] This process not only makes violence between identity groups more likely, it also increases the glorification and celebration of violence as a means of protection against perceived existential threats. In attempting to regulate social relationships, “only those who are included in the group are within the scope of moral concern.”[vi]

Most individuals also undergo a process of moral disengagement that allows them to avoid normal ‘self-regulatory mechanisms’ in order to kill.[vii] Regardless of which in-group an individual ascribes to or what cultural or social situation they operate in, individuals who commit violent acts go through similar moral disengagement steps that can include dehumanizing and distancing the ‘enemy,’ conditioning and training, dispersing responsibility for violence to the collective, and downplaying the negative consequences of their actions. These “social and psychological maneuvers” allow individuals to avoid the moral ‘self-regulatory mechanisms’ that would ordinarily prohibit them from killing, like a guilty conscience.[viii]

These two frameworks complement each other and demonstrate a need for flexibility and fluidity when examining complex topics like identity formation. The creation of an alternate moral framework can itself be seen as a method of moral disengagement. The prevalence of both further suggests that identity formation is not static. While an individual may identify with a particular in-group and ascribe to that group’s moral framework in some contexts, he or she may also identify with another in-group and its alternative moral framework in other situations. Therefore, an individual’s framework might be murky or fluid, resulting in the need to perform moral disengagement processes in order to kill.

The “courage to kill and die is not innate,” rather it is “apathy to violence that has to be cultivated and channeled to a target.”[ix] This ‘apathy to violence’ is possible only when individuals, as active members of collective group identities, are able to view violence within the context of a specific framework that moralizes and justifies it. The similarities in identity formation and moral disengagement mechanisms across cultural and social contexts become clear when viewed through an academic lens. However, when an individual is entrenched within a particular group identity and moral framework, viewing him or herself as undergoing similar processes to ‘the enemy’ can prove difficult. Nevertheless, viewing violence in this way is necessary for both understanding and attempting to mitigate it.

[i] Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008): 64.

[ii] Bernhard Leidner and Emanuele Castano, “Morality Shifting in the Context of Intergroup Violence,” European Journal of Social Psychology 42, no. 1 (2012): 82.

[iii] Sageman, Leaderless Jihad, 64.

[iv] Stephen Reicher, S. Alexander Haslam, and Rakshi Rath, “Making a Virtue of Evil: A Five-step Identity Model of the Development of Collective Hate,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2, no. 3 (May 2008): 1326.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai, Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End and Honor Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): 18.

[vii] Albert Bandura, “Moral Disengagement in the Perpetration of Inhumanities,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 3, no. 3 (1999): 193.

[viii] Ibid., 194.

[ix] Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to Be Human (London: Penguin Books, 2010): 27.



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