[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 . 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 .
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.
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)
MEDICAL BIOLOGY: ON SURVIVING TORTURE
The following points are made by Richard F. Mollica (New Engl. J. Med.
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
NEUROBIOLOGY: ON THE BRAIN AND VIOLENCE
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
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
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
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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