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Stanford Report, May 5, 1999

Psychologist Zajonc urges interdisciplinary research on massacres, genocide


What you saw today on CNN is only a small fraction of what the world has on its conscience. In our century alone, we count between 100 and 160 million civilian casualties, for an average of about 3,000 a day. And we have no idea how to prevent them or stop them.

­Robert Zajonc,
Jordan Hall seminar, April 28

Is the horrendous record of 20th-century genocide and other massacres the result of our "animal" instincts, as some biologists argue, or the nightmare outcome of our "human" creativity? Without better answers to such questions, this century's worst legacy is likely to roar on into the next, psychology Professor Robert Zajonc said Wednesday, April 28, at a Jordan Hall seminar for his colleagues and other students.

Zajonc said he had done widespread reading on massacres for a freshman seminar he taught last fall on the subject and was surprised to discover how little psychology had to offer on the subject of collectively carried-out massacres.

PsychInfo, the citation index of psychological literature, "lists no less than 15,744 articles on 'aggression' and 12,343 entries on 'violence,"' he said, but most of it deals with the subject in the abstract or on the individual level. He acknowledged the contributions of several colleagues, including Albert Bandura and Philip Zimbardo of Stanford, but said more research on collective violence is necessary. "Homicide is not genocide," he said. "It takes many hands to kill 6 million people, and these hands have to act jointly, as a unit."

Most of the published material on massacres is by political scientists, historians and journalists, who often offer psychological explanations based on their intuitions, Zajonc said. "Some of their assumptions could be supported by psychology research and some could not. Psychologists alone can't do very much, but the least we can do is examine those assumptions," he said in an interview after the seminar.

Blaming animal instincts

Meanwhile, socio-biologists such as Richard Dawkins and Edward Wilson and their offspring, evolutionary biologists, have been offering animal models of social behavior as an explanation, for example, for the Serbs' desire to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of Albanians. They have reformulated the concept of instinct so that it is no longer a matter of self-preservation but of "inclusive fitness and kin selection, a force of nature that promotes the perpetuation of one's own and one's own species' genes," Zajonc said.

In their writings, biologists draw parallels, for instance, between chimpanzees pummeling each other at "election time" for a new chimpanzee leader and the ethnic purge that occurred in Burundi in 1972 surrounding the June elections of Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, who was later assassinated.

The biological explanation has been bolstered by the recent discovery that humans share as much as 98.5 percent of their DNA with chimpanzees. Research also indicates that the hypothalamus is involved in suppression of violence and that testosterone levels are important, he said.

But while such work is useful, he said, it needs to acknowledge "the enormous chasm between an ape's grunt and the Marriage of Figaro," and that the observations of collective violence in animal communities is on a vastly smaller scale than human massacres, especially those of the 20th century.

"It is quite a leap from inclusive fitness to the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis in just 100 days," he said of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Stanford psychology Professor Russ Fernald, he added, "does most interesting research on dominance in fish, but I have never heard him draw a parallel to the academic administrative organization, and not even to another species of fish."

The historical record also undercuts kin selection theories, he said, because people who participate in massacres attack their own. Large numbers of close relatives and neighbors were denounced to the Gestapo between 1933 and 1945, for example, and Nigerian dissident Wole Soyinka has given the account of a leading Hutu citizen in a Rwandan town who set an example for other Hutus by slaughtering first his Tutsi wife and then lopping off the heads of his three sons. The Cultural Revolution in China, Pol Pot's purge of urban Cambodians and Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union were also massacres in which both sides came from the same ethnic group, Zajonc said.

Warning signals

Some writing focuses on the preconditions of massacres, particularly difficult life conditions, such as population pressures and unequal distribution of wealth. "But frustration is not a necessary precondition," he said. "The European colonists of Africa did not experience any prior frustration in inflicting all sorts of suffering on the inhabitants of their new colonies. And the slaughter of Native Americans had no frustration as a precondition." While Germany did suffer economic hardships in the '30s, it was at its height of prosperity when the massacres of Jews began on a large scale following the 1942 Wannsee Conference, which decided on the "final solution."

The most important set of factors involved in all massacres, he said, can be combined under the label of "moral imperative." Leaders, usually authoritarians with "god-like stature," use propaganda, organization, stigmatization and dehumanization of some group of people to propose a moral imperative to others. This imperative "provides the energy for the slaughter, gives it direction, engages masses of people in support of the atrocities, and justifies evil deeds and makes them virtuous."

One such imperative is revenge. "The Serbs remember June 28, 1389, a date to avenge their defeat from the Ottoman Empire in Kosovo. It is not a coincidence that Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Archduke Ferdinand started World War I, carried out his 'mission' on June 28. Nor is it a coincidence that the Serbs passed their constitution on June 28, 1921," he said, or that the two Colorado students who planned to massacre their classmates two weeks ago chose Hitler's birth date. (Zajonc quickly added, however, that the high school attack, allegedly planned by two students who were not acting under orders from a government or large political group, "probably does not fall in the same class as these others.")

Contrary to popular belief, he said, "massacres are never spontaneous. All require organization and previous planning." The Hutu massacre of Rwandans in 1994, for example, was initially portrayed as a riotous reaction to the plane crash death of the country's president. But Gérard Prunier, a French scholar of Rwanda, has collected substantial evidence that it was planned. The best proof in Prunier's 1995 book, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, Zajonc said, is that the Hutu government brought from China 2 million machetes, which were freely distributed to the Hutu population.

The earliest warning signals of massacres, he said, include actions by governments to promote or allow legal discrimination of a subgroup. The German Nuremberg Laws, passed in September 1935, for example, forbade Jews from sitting on park benches and using public transport, libraries and museums. Such laws imply impunity for ordinary citizens who take hostile actions against the targeted group, and in fact, he said, the perpetrators of collective violence almost never are held accountable for their crimes.

Massacres, he suggested, also may have an element of "collective potentiation," a complex social process that leads special intellectual skills and emotional resources to develop in distinct locations. In more positive examples of the phenomenon, he explained, 19th-century painters concentrated in Paris, where they struggled with new ideas, praised and criticized each other, and produced impressionism, not unlike the way Silicon Valley has become the center of information technology.

No 20th-century democracy has perpetrated a massacre, he said, but the United States claims 75 percent of the world's serial killers; like perpetrators of massacres, these killers select a category of people as their victims and take special pleasure in mutilating and torturing them, he said.

While many questions need more interdisciplinary research, Zajonc said he believes there is "timely implication" to be drawn from the fact that massacres seem to be mostly products of totalitarian and authoritarian societies.

"NATO is following a strategy that instead of weakening these totalitarian influences in Serbia strengthens them. It is the same erroneous strategy that was proven to have the opposite of the desired effects in Germany in 1944 and 1945. The massive bombing instead of demoralizing the population unified it. It raised the level of authoritarian power of the leadership and increased the unity and cohesion of the country, which was on the verge of collapse."

Massacres, he said, "are not an easy problem, but a problem we have a moral obligation to study." SR