The Psychology of Genocide


One of the results of the Holocaust was a search for understanding as to how this could have happened in civilized European society. Original explanations focused on the Authoritarian Personality model which was proposed by Theodor Adorno. This theory was well accepted because it furthered the division of us and them. Germans did it because they are Germans - and they have a fascist personality type. Research by Kurt Lewin furthered this idea that dictatorial governments led to a certain type of group behaviour, whereas democracies produced ideal citizens.

It was the later research by Stanley Milgram which "shocked" the world. His research indicated that average Americans, when put into a university laboratory setting, would blindly obey a researcher, even if it meant they thought they were physically harming another human being. A new focus in social psychology was now taking shape - the debate between the role of the disposition of the individual and the power of the situation in which s/he finds him or herself.

Another classic study was the Stanford Prison Study carried out by Philip Zimbardo. It appeared that the situation was able to work against the natural dispositions of the participants.

The above research is well known; it is discussed in almost all introductory psychology textbooks. However, there has been a lot of research since Milgram's classic study, and regrettably most textbooks do not address it. On this page I have written a brief overview of several important theories that currently shape our understanding of genocide. This is an enormous topic, so the information here is very general. When possible, references are provided for further reading and research. At the bottom of this page is a set of downloadable readings.


Freudian theory attempted to explain genocide as an irrational and unconscious displacement of frustration onto a less powerful scapegoat. Scapegoat theory, however, has evolved significantly over the past fifty years, and today the Freudian explanation is seen as woefully inadequate to explain the patterns which we see in genocides.

Contrary Freudian theory, the scapegoated group is not likely to be any minority that happens to be vulnerable and helpless, but rather a group that though it may be vulnerable in actuality, is believed to be powerful, cunning and dangerous.  Scapegoating is more likely to be the result of envious prejudice. This would imply that that the process of scapegoating is a conscious, cognitive process, and not an unconscious psychodynamic process. Envious prejudices are likely to be at their most acute in situations in which majority group members feel that their social status has shifted downward relative to the status of the minority, a situation likely to create intense feelings of relative deprivation – the resentment that occurs when individuals or groups believe that others’ outcomes are unfairly greater than their own.  This is often known as Relative Deprivation Theory.

That being said, however, Green et al (1998) have shown that there is no simple correlation between economic or social distress and hate crimes. This supports the idea that an ideological component is a necessary mediator for violence to occur.

Henri Tajfel proposed what he called social causation: a human tendency to search for the understanding of complex, and usually distressful, large-scale social events. Fritz Heider (1958) noted that when we attribute events to the behaviour of a person, we typically assume that the other must have the ability to cause the event. For a group to be scapegoated, it must first be perceived as having the ability to cause widespread problems. There also must be the perception that the targeted group had the intent to cause the frustrating events.

Another flaw of the Freudian scapegoating theory is that increasing ideological commitment can maintain aggression against a scapegoat even if the frustration that initially generated attraction to the ideology disappear. If Freudian displacement is truly occurring, then once the frustration is released or the stressor removed, then the violence should end. Billig (1976) writes: It is too fanciful to imagine that the Germans were kept in an increasing state of emotional arousal for fifteen years, and at the end of this time simultaneously millions happened to rid themselves of these tensions in an identical manner.1 In other words, if displacement theory is correct, ie that the Germans were frustrated with the power of the Allies after World War I and therefore displaced their frustration onto the Jews, why, once Germany was rearmed and powerful and began to attack the true sources of frustration, did the persecution of Jews accelerate rather than diminish? 2

Allport (1954) modified the scapegoating theory with the concept of complementary projection: unfavorable stereotypes of a targeted group are rationalizations that are caused by, rather than cause, aggressive impulses toward the group. In other words, undesirable traits are attributed to the group to justify aggression. This is similar to the concept of derogation of the victim, in which the perpetrator justifies his actions by claiming that it is a just response to the actions of the victim. Lerner calls this the Just World Hypothesis. This theory also allows us to maintain a sense of security, recognizing that since I do not behave the way the victim does, I am therefore safe from violence.

Lastly, as early as 1948 Zawadzki noted that scapegoat theory is inadequate in predicting which minor minority group will be chosen as a target and in accounting for differences in the intensity of dislike. Why is it that so many separate individuals’ psychic conflicts were resolved by choosing the same target? It appears that a more conscious process is necessary - ie an ideology as a mediating force - in order to result in genocide.

The Continuum of Destruction

Ervin Staub argues that genocide and mass killing do not directly arise from difficult life conditions and their psychological effects. There is a progression along a continuum of destruction. People learn and change by participation, as a consequence of their own actions. Small, seemingly insignificant acts can involve a person with a destructive system: for example, accepting benefits provided by the system or even using a required greeting, such as "Heil Hitler." Initial acts that cause limited harm result in psychological changes that make further destructive actions possible. Victims are further devalued: for example, just-world thinking may lead people to believe that suffering is deserved. Perpetrators change and become more able and willing to act against victims. In the end people develop powerful commitment to genocide or to an ideology that supports it.

Staub argues that the necessary societal precondition is what he calls ideologies of antagonism which are the outcome of a long history of hostility and mutual violence.  Such ideologies are world views in which another group is perceived as an implacable enemy, bent on one’s destruction. While a history of hostility and violence can create a realistic fear of the other, usually the extremely negative view of the other is resistant to change. The group’s identity has come to include enmity toward the other.

Another important factor is the false consensus effect - when people falsely believe that their attitudes or beliefs are shared by a majority of other people. According to Albert Bandura, such consensus beliefs provide social justification for moral disengagement, thus serving as precursors to collective violence and facilitating the transition of the eventual perpetrators.

He takes his theory a bit further by discussing the role of all players: victims, perpetrators, helpers, and bystanders. He has argued that healing victimized groups is essential to reduce the likelihood that they become perpetrators.3 His theory is often referred to as the Socio-cultural Motivation Theory because it focuses on a multiplicity of interacting influences which result in intense group violence. The theory focuses on changes within both the individual and the group, the role of bystanders, and how factors interact.

Disposition, situation, or both?

Leonard Newman argues that the dichotomy of situation vs. disposition is an artificial one. Situations do not only interact with dispositional factors to affect behaviour, they also shape and change those dispositions: people do not just react to a situation, they also affect and shape the situation; and situations themselves do not even objectively exist but need to be cognitively constructed by the people they then go on to affect. 4

Ross and Nisbett (1991) discuss the power of the situation through the principle of construal. The impact of any objective stimulus situation depends upon the personal and subjective meaning that the actor attaches to that situation. To predict the behaviour of a given person successfully, we must be able to appreciate the actor’s construal of the situation – that is, the manner in which the person understands the situation as a whole. 5

Cognitive dissonance has been shown to play a significant role in how a person responds to a given situation. When people are led to engage in behaviours that violate their normal standards, they will feel anxiety and stress - which Festinger referred to as cognitive dissonance. As a means of alleviating this stress, they will be motivated to change their attitudes and beliefs to reduce the discrepancy between their behaviour and their cognitions. Bandura (1999) extends the theory of cognitive dissonance by discussing gradualistic moral disengagement. According to his theory, investing harmful conduct with high moral purpose not only eliminates self-censure, but it engages self-approval in the service of the destructive exploits. In order to do this, we re-contextualizing behaviour: for example, we are not killing innocent people, but building a better world for my family.

Group Norming Theories

Matza (1964) carried out a very illustrative study of juvenile delinquents. Miller and Prentice summarize the conclusions: Each of the youths in the gang was privately very uncomfortable with his own behaviour. But because the youths were unwilling to express their reservations publicly, they each appeared to the others as fully committed to, and comfortable with, the group’s delinquency. A system of shared misunderstandings which led to a level of antisocial behaviour that no individual member fully embraced.6 This study illustrates how people’s collective efforts to blend in and conform to a norm can actually reinforce the power of an illusory norm that actually has no counterpart at the level of individuals within the group.

Group theory is the foundation of much of social psychology. Many of the behaviours which we have as individuals are also the behaviours that we see in groups. Like individuals, groups have self-esteem, anxiety, goal-driven behaviour, inter alia. In addition, Pettigrew (1979) argued that one's group membership is so important that we attempt to rationalize not only our own behaviour, but also the behaviour of groups we identify with.

Turner (1985) proposed Self-Categorization Theory, i.e. the groups in which we are members form the bases for the categorizations that we use to identify others and ourselves. In addition, members try to position themselves close to the most prototypical member of the group.  Since the most prototypical member tends to be the most different from the out-group, this leads to more extreme positions or attitudes by the in-group when the inter-group context is made salient.

Moscovici (1984) refers to generally shared beliefs of a group as social representations. They form the basis of a social aggregate’s shared reality and are often used to justify or substantiate other related beliefs or opinions. The perceived validity of a belief is increased simply by communicating it to someone. A person’s available and salient knowledge, regardless of its perceived validity, affects his/her processing of information.  For example – all Americans know the basic elements of a homophobic stereotype – regardless of whether they believe in it. Hence, Americans will interpret relevant situations through the social representation that information. Hence, framing one’s preferred position or solution in terms of a shared belief system (or social representation) can be a quite powerful influence, even when the majority disagrees with your position initially.For example, in the Balkans if I attempt to stoke anti-Muslim feeling by discussing the Turkish occupation or the Second World War, it will be more successful than if I attempt to discuss the more general topic of human rights abuses in fundamentalist Muslim cultures.

Moscovici has also done extensive research on the role of minority opinion. It is very difficult for a minority opinion to sway the majority of a society. Moscovici has found that the most important factor is the consistency of the argument. We can see this in the way that Hitler's Nazi party gained popularity. They kept saying the same thing for almost twenty years. When the social situation changed and fit more in line with their consistent message, people were more apt to accept what they were saying. They had never wavered, and now they were seen as possibly being correct. Latané has argued that the issue of majority vs. minority opinion is much more complex than Moscovici proposes. Latané's Dynamic Social Impact Theory argues that the impact that others have on a person’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours is determined by the strength (eg. status, experience), immediacy (closeness either physically or socially), and number of influence sources.  Over time, beliefs initially held by a majority of the people tend to spread and become more prominent throughout the aggregate.  However, belief clusters also form, thus preventing the majority opinion from totally eradicating the minority. Shared belief structures evolve naturally, and people end up believing many of the same things as their neighbors; this is not a linear process, but a constantly evolving set of understandings.

Part of the dissemination of belief has to do with the availability of information to the group. In a study by Strasser and Titus (1985) information about political candidates was distributed among group members such that some items were shared by all three members, while other items were given to only one member. When the group members were presented with all the information, one of the candidates appeared clearly superior to the other two. The researchers distributed the positive information about the superior candidate such that most of it was unshared (given to only one member), while the positive information about the other candidates was shared among all the members. They found that unshared information was much less likely than shared information to be brought up during discussion; consequently, few groups chose the superior candidate. In other words: when a group comes together to make a decision or discuss an issue, information that is already shared by everyone in the group dominates the discussion and tends to guide the group toward decisions consistent with the shared information. 7 Kameda argues that cognitively central group members – members who share more information with other members – are more influential. Sharing more information with other group members conveys the perception of expertise to the other members.8


1 Billig, M. (1976)  Social Psychology and Inter-group relations. London, Academic press, p 150.

2 Newman, Leonard & Ralph Erber (2002) Understanding Genocide: The Social Psychology of the Holocaust. Oxford University Press, p 123.

3 Ibid., p 15.

4 Ibid., p 51.

5 Nisbett, R & L. Ross (1991). The Person and the Situation. New York: McGraw Hill, p 11.

6 Miller, D. T. and Prentice, D. A. (1994). Collective errors and errors about the collective. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20, p 543.

7 Strasser, G & W Titus (1985). Pooling of unshared information in group decision making: Biased information sampling during a discussion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, p 1467 = 1478.

8 Kadema, T, Y Ohtsubo and M Takezawa (1997). Centrality in socio-cognitive network and social influence: An illustration in a group decision-making context, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 296 - 309.

Further Reading

  • A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People are Transformed into Perpetrators
  • Gordon Allport's Escalation of Violenceexplanation of how genocide can happen
  • A Bell Curve of Hate?
  • Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, by John Lifton
  • Reverberations of the Holocaust fifty years later: psychology's contributions to understanding persecution and genocide
  • Patterns of twentieth century genocides: The Armenian, Jewish, and Rwandan Cases
  • The twisted road to genocide: on the psychological development of evil during the Holocaust