23 Ashley Clark – How Ordinary People Become Perpetrators of Genocide: A Look at the Psychological Factors

Ashley Clark

English 102

How Ordinary People Become Perpetrators of Genocide: A Look at the Psychological Factors

“Who killed her family?”

This was the question posed to a survivor of the Rwandan genocide by filmmaker Daniel Goldhagen in his documentary Worse Than War. “[S]he says they were neighbors,” the translator replies, “… they were even friends to the family.” Goldhagen captured on camera the shock that neighbors and friends could commit such atrocious crimes. This shock echoes through the communities of the victims, scholars, and even the perpetrators of genocide. Furthermore, studies have shown that many perpetrators are, in fact, ordinary men, neither insane nor sadistic. Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, was quoted by Steven Baum in his paper A Bell Curve of Hate. In doing research on the German Nazi and major organizer of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, Arendt had to say this: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.”  Psychiatrist Doug Kelly went on within the same article to further eliminate any doubt that an ordinary person could commit such atrocities. “[W]ell-integrated, productive and secure personalities are no protection against being sucked into a vortex of myth and deception.” In order to understand how an ordinary person could become a perpetrator of genocide, it becomes necessary to understand the psychological aspects that can bring about such an extreme change: the mindset of the individual, the need for categorization by the individual, and the effect of a group on the individual.

The first psychological aspect is the mindset of the individual. This can be understood greater through exploring what the factors are, how they influence or are influenced, and testimonies showing the effect of these factors. Understanding the mindset of the individual requires exploring the factors that contribute to that mindset, such as, emotional development, locus of control, and liminal identities or dual self. Within the study of genocide, three groups have been identified to discern the extent to which an individual participates in genocide: bystanders, rescuers and perpetrators. One study by Steven Baum, found emotional development tiers to be an indicator of the group the individual will belong to. The three tiers distinguish separate phases of the “maturity of functioning” (Baum 568). The top tier, tier III, relates to individuals within the rescuer’s group. The bottom two, tiers I and II, relate to individuals within the perpetrator’s group. Baum describes the bottom tier, which includes many perpetrators of genocide, as follows:

Tier I [is] defined by narcissistic indulgence and characterized by self-absorption, impulsivity, naivete, opportunistic social exchanges, concern for survival and authoritarian needs, basic emotions (anger) and defenses, e.g. numbness; splitting (good/bad) hallmarked by rigidity and cognitive simplicity… and an exclusive social identity.

This study suggests that individuals within tier I and II who exhibit an “underdeveloped personal identity,” as well as an “overdeveloped social identity,” are prone to the rules, norms, morality, religion and politics of the prevailing culture (Baum 569).

Another factor that affects the mindset of the individual is locus of control. Studies suggest that having an internal versus external locus of control directly corresponds to the difference between rescuer and bystander/perpetrator groups (Monroe). Essentially, it is the difference between ‘they made me do it’ and ‘I have a choice so I choose not to.’ The individual with an internal locus of control is in charge of his or her own future, and the conscious creator of it. On the other hand, the individual with an external locus of control, is at the whim or disposal of the outside world. An example of an individual with an external locus of control would be someone claiming the classic Nuremberg defense: ‘I was just following orders.’ Furthermore, in what has proven to be perhaps the most shocking finding of genocide research, studies have found that the mentality, or mindset, of the perpetrators is actually that of a victim (Monroe).  This finding further proves that the perpetrators of genocide exhibit an external locus of control.

The last factor that affects an individual’s mindset is the liminal identity or dual self. In her talk during the genocide conference, Dr. Sharonah Fredrick described liminal identities as identities that are borderline or not being characterized within one group. Though Dr. Fredrick spoke of the liminal identities in regards to the victims of genocide, the theory can also be applied to the perpetrators of genocide. Kristen Renwick Monroe further explains this phenomenon as follows:

[T]he doubling phenomenon noted among Nazis, experienced as ‘a form of desensitization… and incapacity to feel or to confront certain kinds of experience, due to the blocking or absence on inner forms or imagery that can connect with such experience’… The ‘psychological cutting off of one’s sense of reality’ fits nicely into the concept of cognitive stretching, the process whereby an individual is confronted with some political act so far outside the ordinary frame of reference that there literally has to be a widening of the cognitive parameters before the individual can grasp what is occurring… This stretching thus includes the ‘doubling’ (perpetrators who operate as a dual self.)

This description provides greater understanding of the process some perpetrators go through to psychologically separate his or her moral self, from that of his or her perpetrator self that committed the immoral crime. This process results in a dual self or liminal identity. Though there are many more factors that contribute to the mindset of the individual, these three factors, emotional development, locus of control and liminal identity or dual self, correspond to the extreme change from an ordinary person to a perpetrator of genocide.

The factors that contribute to the mindset of the individual can also influence and be influenced. Such influence can be achieved through education, propaganda and threats. Education plays a huge role in creating models of morals. Roger Smith’s article Perpetrators explains the role of education by describing the impact of recruiting children in both the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides. “When children commit brutal acts that are sanctioned by authority, and when, over time, such acts become routine; they learn to define morality strictly in terms of loyalty to the group.” Therefore, what a child comes to learn is good or bad, right or wrong, is taught and learned (Berreby). While individuals may still be taught that “killing is wrong,” the “moral sense” of an individual, as Berreby describes it in his book Us and Them, may alter or overshadow reason. Moral sense may be byproducts of automatic, unconscious and other innate bias mental codes. This can indicate why ordinary people behave differently than reason would dictate (Berreby 192-193).

A second factor that can influence the individual is propaganda. Skillful propaganda can shape, mold and solidify perceptions, bias and viewpoints. Propaganda can play on or create false fear or doubt and cause panic. Conversely, it can play on false hope in motivating the individual toward a fraudulent, destructive goal. In Figure I, propaganda is the factor that increased the killings of Tutsis by both civilians and military during the Rwandan genocide. The spike in the graph, is a direct result of a propaganda campaign broadcast over the airways. A study by David Yanagizawa-Drott concluded the following:

The results show that the broadcasts had a significant effect on participation in killings by both militia groups and ordinary civilians. An estimated 51,000 perpetrators, or approximately 10% of the overall violence, can be attributed to the station. The broadcasts increased militia violence not only directly by influencing behavior in villages with radio reception but also indirectly by increasing participation in neighboring villages. In fact, spillovers are estimated to have caused more militia violence than the direct effects.

The direct influence of propaganda on not only the militia, but on ordinary people as well, was explicitly shown by this study.

A final factor that can influence the individual is the threat of life. Frequent ‘either or’ choices were given to the perpetrators. Choices between his or her life, or taking the life of the victim (Monroe). This tactic was also used to stop bystanders from helping in genocides. Holocaust survivor Oskar Knoblauch, in his talk at the Genocide Conference, mentioned the threat of death posted on signs to those individuals who helped the Jews, death to them and to their family. A choice between one’s own life and that of another is a highly effective form of influence. This tactic further explains the victim mentality that is exhibited in the perpetrators of genocide. These studies provide a greater understanding into three factors, education, propaganda and threats, and how they are effective to influence the individual.

Many personal testimonies show how these factors influence the mindsets and actions of the individual. A perpetrator, studied by Kristen Renwick Monroe in her paper Cracking the Code of Genocide, exhibits the internal locus of control when talking about the crimes he committed. “I didn’t have a choice!” (Monroe). Here, he blames his choices on external factors. Further interviews by Monroe, showcase the effect of propaganda on an individual.

We are too nice. We are defenseless against them. If you see all the people hanged at Nuremberg, I think you know it!… They (Jews) want to hang the Germans at Nuremberg on Purim as proof of their own people’s power. They are powerful. They made up the Holocaust!

A final example illustrates the dual self. Many perpetrators describe their actions as like being “on automatic… in an emotional block… [You] cross the border and enter the surreal… everything becomes a sort of blur, but you have to move,” (Monroe 705). The dual self aspect is also seen in the denial by both bystanders and perpetrators saying they were only “innocent cogs” that were a part of a “giant machine whose purpose was unknown to them,” (Monroe 705).  These testimonies, provide a clearer picture of the mindset of the individual, what the factors are and how they influence or are influenced. Along with the mindset of the individual, the need for categorization by the individual provides greater understanding for how an ordinary person could become a perpetrator of genocide.

The need for categorization by the individual is the second psychological aspect that helps in understanding how an ordinary person could become a perpetrator of genocide. To understand categorization, it is essential to understand how categorization works, how it is used within the genocide context, and what testimonies reveal about categorization. The way in which categorization works can be understood by looking at models of human kinds, an us versus them model, and classification. For most things, models are created by the human mind in order to understand life and process information (Berreby). Without classifying things, the vast amount of information would prove useless in helping to understand and function in a complex world. A model serves as a means whereby the human mind can take in complex information and transform it into easy to understand categories. Human kinds, or categories for human beings, are no different. Though the process one takes to create or change these models is lengthy, the application as it applies to genocidal studies can be summarized in the following excerpt from David Berreby’s book.

Like all codes, the one for human kinds makes us think our perceptions are straightforward and natural and true. And it makes us think we know where those perceptions come from. But the actual sources of those perceptions are signs that are not recognized outside our conscious minds, according to rules of which we are not aware. If that’s so, it follows that human-kind code can be manipulated in experiments. It should be possible to make typical, conscious, aware people…stop believing in human kinds by changing the conditions of the experiment… but it has been done.

What this excerpt implies for understanding how ordinary people can become perpetrators of genocide, is that the perception in which one categorizes human beings, the lens or model used, can be altered, changed, influenced or taught. Us versus them is one such model.

The us versus them model has benefits as in the case of treating a mother differently than a stranger on the train. Conversely, it can enable one to create a separation of all human life (Berreby). This model, of us versus them, has deep ties to moral regard. “This feeling – what is not ‘us’ is not moral – should strike people as deeply weird, but it doesn’t… Many of our feelings about right and wrong are actually feelings about Us and Them,” (Berreby 200). Berreby’s insight into the emotional strings that come along with use of this model, provides evidence for why it is such an effective model to influence the mind of the individual.

A final model that is used is classification. This model, beneficially used, is created to understand such things as the various breeds of dogs; however, it too has negative applications. Classification creates a hierarchy in the minds of individuals. In this way, it becomes easier, and almost necessary, to separate the victim from being in the same class as the perpetrator. The victim then goes through a reclassification in the mind of the perpetrator, to assume a lower class than one that the perpetrator belongs to. “Classifying people as different makes it easier to justify mistreating them, just as African slaves were not viewed as fully human by America’s founding fathers because of difference in skin color” (Monroe, 731). All of these models, human kind, us versus them, and classification, are effectively utilized to influence the change from an ordinary person to a perpetrator of genocide. For understanding this extreme change, understanding how these models are used is equally as important as understanding what the models are.

In a genocide context, the way in which these models are used are outgroup homogeneity, characterization of the enemy, and dehumanization. Outgroup homogeneity stems from the natural cognitive process in which one will place individuals into various social groups based upon their social group memberships (Stangor). Outgroup homogeneity is “the tendency to view members of outgroups as more similar to each other than we see members of ingroups,” (Stangor). Because the interactions with outgroup members tend to be less frequent and superficial, members of the outgroup tend to be lumped together. Individuals within the ingroup tend to attribute characteristics or intentions to the outgroup as a whole rather than attributing different characteristics or intentions to each individual of the outgroup.

Like outgroup homogeneity, categorization of a group as an enemy or threat is another use of these models. To characterize an outgroup as an enemy or threat, is to elicit a fear response within those in the ingroup.  In Jack El-Hai’s book, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, the American psychiatrist Douglas McGlashan Kelley observed the following “It is an established scientific fact that a person who is thinking with the emotional (thalamic) brain centers cannot think intellectually (cortically)…Hitler had an entire people thinking with its thalamus. In such a state they fell easy prey to… propagandists.” The pattern that can arise, the pattern of fear to susceptibility of propaganda to characterizing an outgroup as a threat to fear again, is a vicious cycle that is a profound influence on the individual.

A third but equally important use of these models is dehumanization of groups. Dehumanization, or categorizing them as less than human, effectively separates the victim from any human characteristics. This creates distance and distinction (Berreby). Figure II displays a table that summarizes the findings of over 15 studies on objectification, dehumanization and classification. The table is divided into three categories, “equating a human with something non-human or less then human, taking away something that is normally accorded to a human, and denying a person some portion of their essence” (Zurbriggen 193). The table marks the genocidal factors associated with each aspect. While the magnitude and wealth of information that this table provides could fill a book, the information can be summarized in this way; preceding genocide is a deliberate act to characterize or dehumanize the victim into something less than human, or lacking in human qualities or emotions. Throughout all of the studies in all three categories, only one factor is common among them all, devaluing the sub-group (Zurbriggen 193). In their paper, “Ordinary Men” or “Evil Monsters”?, Kerrilee Hollows and Katarina Fritzon summarize why the use of these models are so effective:

[T]he use of propaganda techniques such as dehumanization are effective because the act of stripping individuals of their human qualities is believed to exacerbate intergroup prejudice and result in a form of psychological distancing, which then becomes justification for the enactment of violent behavior.

As both the figure and studies show, outgroup homogeneity, characterization of a threat or enemy, and dehumanization are key aspects in genocidal studies, particularly, when understanding how an ordinary person can become a perpetrator of genocide.

Testimonies of categorization provide further insight as to the potency of these aspects and their influence on ordinary people. The effect and ease of one person, especially a ruler, altering the categorization of human kind, is explained by Berreby.

The task is not difficult. All a ruler need do is arrange the lives of his subjects so that their human-kind codes are shaped to the ruler’s liking….. Ordinary subjects would not ask why those people, so much like themselves, were not considered human. Moreover, ordinary people would work hard to avoid becoming like those bad kinds.

As an example of one such leader, Lothar Von Trotha, who was a key leader in the Herero genocide, issued an order that was to be read to all troops. “Hereros are no longer German subjects. They have murdered, stolen, they have cut off the noses, ears, and other bodily parts of wounded soldiers and now, because of cowardice, they will fight no more” (Bartrop 9).  This testimony illustrates both what Berreby spoke of as well as categorization of the enemy. Author Donald G. Dutton describes the actions of Reserve Police Battalion 101, their part in the Holocaust and the categorization of Jews as the enemy. “When hesitation manifested itself, the commander said… that the men should remember this was the enemy, and the enemy was killing German women and children” (Dutton, 115). Kristen Renwick Monore, in her extensive research on the psychology of genocide, quoted one perpetrator of the Holocaust as saying the following: “You know, they were not human anymore” (Monroe, 729). This quote, illustrates the dehumanization of the outgroup. Outgroup homogeneity can be seen in the following testimony of a girl living through the Cambodian genocide. Her testimony shows that attributing characteristics and intentions to a group as a whole can effectively work both ways. “The Khmer Rouge were very clever and brutal. Their tactics were effective because most of us refused to believe their malicious intentions… How could these worms have come out of our own skin?“ (Bartrop 122). The examples that these studies and testimonies provide shed light on how categorization works and how it is used within the genocide context. Along with the need for categorization by the individual, group dynamic can help in understanding the extreme change that occurs going from an ordinary person to a perpetrator of genocide.

The effect of a group on the individual is a third psychological factor. This group dynamic is illustrated through the individual factors, the effect of these factors, and testimonies illustrating these factors. Understanding the individual factors about group dynamics, begins with learning about the creation of a “skin”, having common mental state, and group culture. The “skin,” or mental skin of a group, effectively acts as a container both to hold things in, and keep things out. James M. Glass in his paper, Group Phantasy: Its Place in the Psychology of Genocide, describes it in this following excerpt:

It works both on the conscious level of reason…and unconsciously as the affective glue adhering group identifications and symbols. Boundaries, both rational and psychological, become membranes or barriers; membranes holding in the collective anxiety; barriers in the sense of keeping our poisonous thoughts, toxins in the environment, defects in the gene pool, polluted flesh… [it] keeps inside those values essential to the belief structure of the group and outside, those values and others the group hates.

This creates a unified belief, or unified front, as well as acting as a protective cover for those within the group (Glass).

The second factor of group dynamic is the group having a common mental state. Glass describes this as a group providing the feeling of being part of a whole which, provides a much superior feeling than that of being alone. This aspect is further summarized by James Waller, author of Becoming Evil “[The] fusion of individuals into a common spirit and feeling that blurs individual differences and lowers intellectual capacities.” Essentially, the views and perceptions of the group become the individual’s view and perception. The last aspect of a group dynamic is the group culture. Berreby explains that “every mind creates categories out of experience… This engineering of experience is what we call culture.” Berreby’s explanation illustrates the profound effect a group culture can have on the processes of the mind. If the willingness of the public, via the culture of that group, believes that mass murder, or genocide in this case, is the norm or needed, and that it is “essential national policy,” then the capability for a culture to commit it becomes a reality (Glass).

Effects of the group’s dynamics can be seen by studying changed perception, shared psychology and group consciousness. In a study done by Muzafer Sherif, individuals were all shown a light that came on, moved, and turned off. The individuals were asked, for the first trial, to record the distance the light traveled. They were then put into groups and answered the same question several more times. For the second trial, the individuals started in groups and were asked the same question multiple times.  As seen in Figure III, a group can affect perception of even a single stimulus. The shared perception of the group, became the perception of each individual, even if alone, they perceived something different. The second effect, shared psychology, is explained by James M. Glass.

For the political or culture group to work effectively, it must share psychological space that operated on both conscious and unconscious levels – conscious in the sense of guiding and orienting group behavior (the construction of ghettos to contain Jewish “contamination”), and unconscious in the sense of provoking similar forms of identification that forge the groups empathic connections.

This shared psychological space is not geographically contained but can span entire countries as it did in the Holocaust (Glass).  Furthermore, group consciousness acts as a means to normalize or rationalize otherwise “psychotic” behaviors (Glass). What is deemed normal or rational for the group, becomes normal or rational for the individual. For Germany, the murder of schizophrenics was seen as necessary and a normal part of the culture (Glass). Group consciousness then, acts to overshadow the individual’s own consciousness. Understanding these aspects, changed perception, shared psychology and group consciousness, helps in further understanding how an ordinary person could become a perpetrator of genocide.

Testimonies of the effects of group dynamic illustrate the power it has over an individual. In Christopher R. Browning’s book, Ordinary Men, Browning commented from several of the men that, that no one in the group wanted to seem ‘too weak’ or ‘cowardly.’ “Who would have ‘dared,’ one policeman declared emphatically, to lose face in front of the troops” (Browning 72). Furthermore, he illustrates the strong conformity of the group.  “As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity-the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out” (Browning, 71). Monroe in her studies, quotes the following of one perpetrator. “This was a visibly nationalist group, to instill in our youth a feeling of nationalism, love of country and devotion to their own kinds. As members, we wanted to serve the country with honor and camaraderie, with order and discipline” (Monore, 725). This testimony speaks to the education put in place at a young age to promote conformity and nationalism of the group. As illustrated by these testimonies, the factors of group dynamic and the effects of them, are potent influences in the extreme change that occurs when an ordinary person becomes a perpetrator of genocide.

These three influential aspects, the mindset of an individual, the need for categorization by an individual, and the effect of a group on an individual, help to provide a greater understanding of how an ordinary person could become a perpetrator of genocide. However, it is important to understand that all of these aspects influence and are influenced by each other. Therefore, each aspect is not an individual factor nor single instigator. With this better understanding of how ordinary people can commit genocide, the question then becomes how to apply this knowledge to the movement called ‘never again’ that urges the end of all genocides. For that noble purpose, people can learn a lesson from the Disney movie, The Lion King II. At the end of the movie, when a war is about to be waged between the outsiders and the pride, Kiara, the King of the Prideland’s daughter, stands between the two groups. “Them…us. Look at them… they are us. What differences do you see?”











Works Cited

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Berreby, David. Us and them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. Little, Brown and Co, New York, 2005.

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Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, et al. “Worse than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity.” PBS Distribution, Alexandria, Va., 2010, scottsdalecc.summon.serialssolutions.com/

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Sherif, Muzafer. “A Study of Some Social Factors in Perception.” The Mead Project. 2007. https://brocku.ca/MeadProject/Sherif/Sherif_1935a/Sherif_1935a_toc.html

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Stangor, Charles. Principles of Social Psychology. N.p.: n.p., 2011. 26 Sept. 2014. Web.

Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford University Press, Oxford; New York;, 2002.

Yanagizawa-Drott, David. “Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide*.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 129, no. 4, Nov. 2014, pp. 1947-1994. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.scottsdalecc.edu:2443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=buh&AN=101035899&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Zurbriggen, Eileen L.. “Objectification, Self-Objectification, and Societal Change.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology[Online], 1.1 (2013): 188-215. Web.


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