The Psychology of Cruelty

14 September 2018

Are people cruel because they lack empathy? Is cruelty always a matter of seeing others as less than human? Or are there some who simply enjoy seeing people suffer? These are some of the questions we’ll be tackling in this week’s show.

A popular theory is that something goes wrong with the empathy circuits in the brain of the cruel person. And that’s when you get violent or abusive behavior toward other people. This phenomenon is often described as empathy erosion. There may be many different causes of empathy erosion, and it could be a temporary state or a general tendency, depending on the person and their circumstances. But when empathy erosion occurs, it translates into a failure to see another person as fully human. And when we don’t see other people as fully human, it’s much easier for us to treat them cruelly.

Evidence for this theory often includes the kind of language or rhetoric that is used in the buildup to (or in the subsequent justification for) extreme violence against groups of people, such as the Rwandan genocide, or the Holocaust. In both of these cases, the victims were characterized as “cockroaches” or “vermin” that needed to be exterminated by the perpetrators of the violence. They were dehumanized, thus making acts of extreme cruelty possible.

This theory certainly makes sense of mass violence, but I wonder if it tells the whole story. Are cruel actions always driven by a lack of empathy?

To answer this question, I think we should look at more everyday instances of cruelty or violence, like road rage. On one reading, that familiar phenomenon fits perfectly with the theory that abusive behavior happens between people when there’s a breakdown of empathy. After all, we’re all driving around in our little metal boxes, separated from one another, and so we often fail to recognize each other’s humanity. So when someone cuts you off, boom! That’s when the abuse begins.

But notice I said, “when someone cuts you off.” That’s an important point that we ought not to gloss over. Road rage is usually a response to a perceived bad act on the part of another driver. Road rage is reactive. It’s not like as soon as you get behind the wheel of a car you suddenly start abusing every motorist you come across. But if someone cuts you off, that’s a different story. With road rage, the anger and abuse is a reaction to perceived mistreatment.

Defenders of the empathy theory might insist that the windshield has some effect on our ability to empathize with another person, thus contributing to the road rage phenomenon. The windshield creates distance between people, much like a computer screen does, which is why we have so much nasty behavior online. Road rage may be reactive, but a lot of online trolling seems to be unprovoked. There are people who troll just for the fun of it—albeit it a sick, sadistic fun. Surely that's a case where it's all about dehumanization?

Again, I don’t think the empathy theory gives us the full picture. The point of online trolling is to to get a rise out of the other person. Trolls try to elicit an emotional reaction. So, they are fully aware of the fact that the other person is human and has feelings. In fact, they are exploiting that fact to get their sadistic kicks. It’s precisely because the victim is human that they can be made to suffer.

But surely the trolls are still lacking in empathy? Well, it depends what you mean by “empathy.” If you mean caring or compassion, then sure, that is something that the trolls probably lack. But if you mean (more precisely) the ability to tune into other people's feelings, unfortunately, that's exactly what those mean trolls do. Sadists are great at knowing what we're feeling, and that's precisely how they get to torture us so effectively.

So what is going on in the minds of cruel people? Can people be empathetic and cruel at once ?

Our guest this week, psychologist Paul Bloom, thinks that empathy is neither necessary nor sufficient for treating others with kindness and compassion. He has written a book on empathy with the somewhat surprising title, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. He will be talking with Josh and guest host, psychologist Alison Gopnik. Join the conversation!

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, September 19, 2018 -- 11:53 AM

After thinking more about

After thinking more about this, and reflecting on what I have read about memes (see: Dawkins; Dennett;et. al.), I had a scary thought(perhaps an original one, although I would not make an untested claim): Dennett has called memes 'informational symbionts' and states that they are and always have been with us. If he, and his notion are correct, might it not be that cruelty is just another form of memetic expression---something we have so indelibly ingrained within us, that under the given stimulative circumstances, we have little moral control over whether we will behave cruelly or turn another cheek? Think about daily experiences and our reactions to them: we are exquisitely well-trained, in a Pavlovian sense---pleasure and reward bring predictable responses; pain and disappointment bring likewise predictable negative reactions. Sure, this entire enterprise is convoluted, just as is today's fascination with 'extreme' everything. But, as Dennett has also asserted, memes just ARE. They are neither always nor in all ways good for something---all we can say is that they are good for themselves. As a practical matter, that is all we CAN say about them. Julian Jaynes thought that schizophrenia was a by-product of what he called 'the breakdown of the bicameral mind'---his notion about the origin(s) of consciousness. I used to think his idea on this was, at best, exotic.
Now, I am not so sure. Perhaps such a breakdown, if it did occur, was an origin of memetic experience in homo sapiens? This is speculative, to be sure. But a lot of what we think about IS speculative.