[Paleopsych] SW: On Ordinary People as Torturers

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Social Psychology: On Ordinary People as Torturers

    The following points are made by S.T. Fiske et al (Science 2004
    1) Initial reactions to the events at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were
    shock and disgust. How could Americans be doing this to anyone, even
    to Iraqi prisoners of war? Some observers immediately blamed "the few
    bad apples" presumably responsible for the abuse. However, many social
    psychologists knew that it was not that simple. Society holds
    individuals responsible for their actions, as the military
    court-martial recognizes, but social psychology suggests we should
    also hold responsible peers and superiors who control the social
    2) Social psychological evidence emphasizes the power of social
    context; in other words, the power of the interpersonal situation.
    Social psychology has accumulated a century of knowledge about how
    people influence each other for good or ill [1]. Meta-analysis, the
    quantitative summary of findings across a variety of studies, reveals
    the size and consistency of such empirical results. Recent
    meta-analyses document reliable experimental evidence of social
    context effects across 25,000 studies of 8 million participants [2].
    Abu Ghraib resulted in part from ordinary social processes, not just
    extraordinary individual evil. Meta-analyses suggests that the right
    (or wrong) social context can make almost anyone aggress, oppress,
    conform, and obey.
    3) Virtually anyone can be aggressive if sufficiently provoked,
    stressed, disgruntled, or hot [3-5]. The situation of the 800th
    Military Police Brigade guarding Abu Ghraib prisoners fit all the
    social conditions known to cause aggression. The soldiers were
    certainly provoked and stressed: at war, in constant danger, taunted
    and harassed by some of the very citizens they were sent to save, and
    their comrades were dying daily and unpredictably. Their morale
    suffered, they were untrained for the job, their command climate was
    lax, their return home was a year overdue, their identity as
    disciplined soldiers was gone, and their own amenities were scant.
    Heat and discomfort also doubtless contributed.
    4) The fact that the prisoners were part of a group encountered as
    enemies would only exaggerate the tendency to feel spontaneous
    prejudice against outgroups. In this context, oppression and
    discrimination are synonymous. One of the most basic principles of
    social psychology is that people prefer their own group and attribute
    bad behavior to outgroups. Prejudice especially festers if people see
    the outgroup as threatening cherished values. This would have
    certainly applied to the guards viewing their prisoners at Abu Ghraib,
    but it also applies in more "normal" situations. A recent sample of US
    citizens on average viewed Muslims and Arabs as not sharing their
    interests and stereotyped them as not especially sincere, honest,
    friendly, or warm.
    5) Even more potent predictors of discrimination are the emotional
    prejudices ("hot" affective feelings such as disgust or contempt) that
    operate in parallel with cognitive processes. Such emotional reactions
    appear rapidly, even in neuroimaging of brain activations to
    outgroups. But even they can be affected by social context.
    Categorization of people as interchangeable members of an outgroup
    promotes an amygdala response characteristic of vigilance and alarm
    and an insula response characteristic of disgust or arousal, depending
    on social context; these effects dissipate when the same people are
    encountered as unique individuals.
    References (abridged):
    1. S. T. Fiske, Social Beings (Wiley, New York, 2004)
    2. F. D. Richard, C. F. Bond, J. J. Stokes-Zoota, Rev. Gen. Psychol.
    7, 331 (2003)
    3. B. A. Bettencourt, N. Miller, Psychol. Bull. 119, 422 (1996)
    4. M. Carlson, N. Miller, Sociol. Soc. Res. 72, 155 (1988)
    5. M. Carlson, A. Marcus-Newhall, N. Miller, Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull.
    15, 377 (1989)
    Science http://www.sciencemag.org
    Related Material:
    The following points are made by Richard F. Mollica (New Engl. J. Med.
    2004 351:5):
    1) The shocking, unfiltered images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq
    have focused the world's attention on the plight of torture survivors.
    Physicians in the US are confronted as never before with the need to
    identify and treat the physical and psychological sequelae of extreme
    violence and torture. Yet this is not a new role for medical
    practitioners. More than 45 countries are currently suffering from the
    destruction caused by mass violence.(1) The 20th century has been
    called the "refugee century", with tens of millions of people
    violently displaced from their homes. Millions of these people have
    resettled in the US, and refugees, asylum seekers, and illegal
    immigrants now commonly enter our health care institutions.(2)
    2) Despite routine exposure to the suffering of victims of human
    brutality, health care professionals tend to shy away from confronting
    this reality. The author states that he and his colleagues have cared
    for more than 10,000 torture survivors, and in their experience,
    whether in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, East Timor, or the US,
    clinicians avoid addressing torture-related symptoms of illness
    because they are afraid of opening a Pandora's box: they believe they
    will not have the tools or the time to help torture survivors once
    they have elicited their history.
    3) Unfortunately, survivors and clinicians may conspire to create a
    relationship founded on the avoidance of all discussion of trauma. In
    one instance, a middle-aged Cambodian woman had had an excellent
    relationship with her American doctor for nine years, but he had no
    idea that she had been tortured. He had had only partial success in
    controlling her type 2 diabetes. After attending a training session on
    treating the effects of terrorism after the events of September 11,
    2001, the doctor asked the patient for the first time whether she had
    undergone extreme violence or torture. She revealed that two of her
    children had died of starvation in Cambodia, her husband had been
    taken away violently and disappeared, and she had been sexually
    violated under the Khmer Rouge. More recently, in the US, her
    remaining daughter had been nearly fatally stabbed by a gang that
    burglarized her home. Since September 11, the patient had taken to
    barricading herself in her house, leaving only to see her doctor. When
    the doctor became aware of the patient's traumatic history, he used a
    screening tool to explore the effects of her traumas, diagnosing major
    depression. Over time, he was able to treat the depression with
    medication and counseling, eventually bringing the diabetes under
    control as well.
    4) The author concludes: Torture and its human and social effects are
    now in the global public eye. Medical professionals must relinquish
    their fears and take the lead in healing the wounds inflicted by the
    most extreme acts of human aggression. Commitment to a process that
    begins with a simple but courageous act -- asking the right question
    -- bespeaks the belief that medicine is a potent antidote to the
    practices of torturers.(3-5)
    1. Krug EG, Dahlberg LL, Mercy JA, Zwi AB, Lozano R, eds. World report
    on violence and health. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2002.
    2. Bramsen I, van der Ploeg HM. Use of medical and mental health care
    by World War II survivors in the Netherlands. J Trauma Stress
    3. Goldfeld AE, Mollica RF, Pesavento BH, Faraone SV. The physical and
    psychological sequelae of torture: symptomatology and diagnosis. JAMA
    1988;259:2725-2729. [Erratum, JAMA 1988;260:478
    4. Mollica RF. Waging a new kind of war: invisible wounds. Sci Am
    5. Cassano P, Fava M. Depression and public health: an overview. J
    Psychosom Res 2002;53:849-857
    New Engl. J. Med. http://www.nejm.org
    Related Material:
    Notes by ScienceWeek:
    Although human violence has been a major focus of research in
    psychiatry, psychology, and the social sciences, neurobiological
    studies of human violence have been relatively uncommon. Neurobiology,
    however, is a major component in our understanding of human behavior:
    genetics, environment, brain structure and brain function are all
    involved in both ordinary behavior and in violent behavior.
    The following points are made by C.M. Filley et al (The Scientist 2001
    2 Apr):
    1) The authors point out that in adults, the role of brain damage in
    violence remains unclear. A brain lesion by itself is rarely
    sufficient to cause violent behavior, and most individuals with brain
    damage do not commit criminal acts. But we cannot assume that the
    brains of violent individuals are invariably normal. The neurologic
    status of the brains of violent persons has not been adequately
    assessed by detailed neurological examination, neuropsychological
    testing, *magnetic resonance imaging, or *functional neuroimaging.
    Studies of murderers have suggested a high prevalence of neurologic
    dysfunction, and some individuals with traumatic brain injury,
    epilepsy, dementia, and sleep disorders have been observed to exhibit
    excessive violence. Violence is more likely among those with severe
    mental illness, particularly psychosis, and violence is exacerbated by
    the use of alcohol and other psychoactive substances.
    2) The authors point out that detailed analysis of the neurobehavioral
    aspects of violence is complex:
    a) The cause of violence is multifactorial, and a direct correlation
    between brain dysfunction and a violent act is rarely possible.
    b) Identification of brain lesions is imperfect given the limitations
    of diagnostic classifications, the limitations of the neurologic
    examination, the limitations of neuroimaging technologies, the
    limitations of neuropsychological assessment, and the limitations of
    neurochemical analysis.
    c) Some subject samples, such as prisoners or those with severe
    neurologic or psychiatric disease, are necessarily based on violent
    persons who are apprehended or hospitalized. Conclusions are therefore
    based only on those whose records are analyzed, and the potential for
    violence in the general population remains unknown.
    3) There is the possibility of a neurogenetic contribution to violent
    behavior. Although no single gene for human violence has been
    discovered, data from molecular genetics indicate that multiple genes
    may interact to predispose individuals to violent behavior.
    Observations in mouse *knockout models have suggested that targeted
    disruption of single genes can induce aggressiveness in males and
    diminish nurturing in females. Aggression in animals and humans is
    also likely related to genes regulating central nervous system
    *serotonin metabolism.
    4) In general, males are much more likely to commit violent acts than
    are females, but genetic factors may not explain this discrepancy.
    Socioeconomic and cultural influences play a major role. Unemployment,
    lower educational level, alcohol abuse, and access to firearms all
    contribute to violent crime among males. The *XYY chromosomal disorder
    serves to highlight difficulties in establishing an influence of
    gender on violence.
    5) Although no "violence center" exists in the brain, the *limbic
    system and the *frontal lobes are areas most implicated in violence.
    The limbic system is the neuroanatomic substrate for many aspects of
    emotion. The limbic system structure most often implicated in violent
    behavior is the *amygdala: placidity has been described in humans with
    bilateral amygdala damage, whereas violence has been observed in those
    with abnormal electrical activity in the amygdala. The frontal lobes
    are apparently the areas of the most advanced functions of the brain.
    In particular, the *orbitofrontal cortices are involved in the
    inhibition of aggression: individuals with orbitofrontal injury have
    been found to display antisocial traits that justify the diagnosis of
    "acquired sociopathy", and some of these individuals have an increased
    risk of violent behavior. A balance apparently exists between the
    potential for impulsive aggression mediated by limbic structures, and
    the control of this drive by the influence of the orbitofrontal
    6) The authors conclude: "Whereas dysfunction of a discrete brain
    region, isolated neurochemical system, or single gene will not likely
    emerge as a direct cause of violence, all may contribute."
    The Scientist http://www.the-scientist.com
    Notes by ScienceWeek:
    magnetic resonance imaging: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is
    essentially a technique for examining morphology (as opposed to
    _functional_ magnetic resonance imaging, which is a technique for
    examining anatomical correlates of function). In general, MRI involves
    magnetic coils producing a static magnetic field parallel to the long
    axis of the patient or subject, combined with inner concentric
    magnetic coils producing a static magnetic field perpendicular to the
    long axis. A radio-frequency coil specifically designed for the head
    perturbs the static fields to generate a magnetic resonance image. The
    interaction physics in this technique is that between the magnetic
    fields and atomic nuclei in brain tissue. "Sliced" views can be
    obtained from any angle, and the resolution is quite high and on the
    order of millimeters for magnetic field strengths of 1.5 tesla.
    functional neuroimaging: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
    is based on the fact that oxyhemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying form of
    hemoglobin, has a different magnetic resonance signal than
    deoxyhemoglobin, the oxygen-depleted form of hemoglobin. Activated
    brain areas utilize more oxygen, which transiently decreases the
    levels of oxyhemoglobin and increases the levels of deoxyhemoglobin,
    and within seconds the brain microvasculature responds to the local
    change by increasing the flow of oxygen-rich blood into the active
    area. This local response thus leads to an increase in the
    oxyhemoglobin-deoxyhemoglobin ratio, which forms the basis for the
    fMRI signal in this technique. Because of its high spatial resolution
    (millimeters) and high temporal resolution (seconds) compared to other
    imaging techniques, fMRI is now the technology of choice for studies
    of the functional architecture of the human brain. Positron emission
    (PET) tomography is a technique for producing cross-sectional images
    of the body after ingestion and systemic distribution of safely
    metabolized positron-emitting agents. The images are essentially
    functional or metabolic, since the ingested agents are metabolized in
    various tissues. Fluoro-deoxyglucose and H(sub2)O(sup15) are common
    agents used for cerebral applications, and in cerebral applications of
    central importance to the technique is the fact that changes in the
    cellular activity of the brains of normal, awake humans and
    unanesthetized laboratory animals are invariably accompanied by
    changes in local blood flow and also changes in oxygen consumption.
    knockout models: In general, in this context, "knockout technology"
    involves the generation of a mutant organism (usually a mouse) with a
    missing specific gene.
    serotonin metabolism: A neurotransmitter substance involved in nearly
    everything occurring in the brain, including psychological states such
    as anxiety and depression, and dysfunctions producing migraine and
    XYY chromosomal disorder: Humans ordinarily have 46 chromosomes. Of
    this number, 44 are not sex-related and are called "autosomal". Two
    chromosomes, X and Y, are sex-related. An individual with two X
    chromosomes is a female; an individual with one X and one Y chromosome
    is a male. Approximately 1 in 1000 males have an extra Y chromosome
    (total 47 chromosomes), and this abnormality is denoted as "47,XYY".
    Such individuals are often characterized by tallness, severe acne, and
    sometimes skeletal malformations and mental deficiency. It has been
    suggested that the presence of an extra Y chromosome in an individual
    may cause him to be more aggressive and prone to criminal behavior,
    but recent studies of the general population have cast doubt on the
    validity of this linkage.
    limbic system: In general, this refers to those cortical and
    subcortical structures ("cortical" refers to cerebral cortex)
    concerned with the emotions. The most prominent anatomical components
    of the limbic system are the cingulate gyrus, the hippocampus, and the
    amygdala, all "deep brain" structures and not visible on the exterior
    surface of the brain.
    frontal lobes: One of the four lobes of the brain. The other lobes are
    the parietal lobe, the temporal lobe, and the occipital lobe. Each
    hemisphere has these 4 lobes.
    amygdala: A cellular complex in the temporal lobe that forms part of
    the limbic system. The major functional correlates of the amygdala are
    autonomic nervous system behavior, emotional behavior, and sexual
    orbitofrontal cortices: The orbitofrontal cortex lies directly under
    the forehead skull.

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