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Journal Article

The Psychology of Perpetrators and Bystanders

Ervin Staub
Political Psychology
Vol. 6, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 61-85
DOI: 10.2307/3791271
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3791271
Page Count: 25
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The Psychology of Perpetrators and Bystanders
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Abstract

Why do governments or powerful groups in a society foster genocide, mass murder, and other organized acts of violence against a subgroup? This article explores psychological sources, social (life) conditions, and cultural preconditions that contribute to such actions. Difficult life conditions, a common precursor of mistreatment of a group, create frustration, threat to, and attack on life, ways of life, and self-concept. In their need to deal with the psychological effects of difficult life conditions, people often will scapegoat, and turn to ideologies which offer hope but identify some group as an enemy. These and other ways of dealing with the psychological effects of difficult life conditions frequently give rise to violence. Certain characteristics of a culture-such as a belief in cultural superiority (which is threatened by conditions of life), devaluation of, and discrimination against, a group, obedience to authority, and others-make this more likely. Once mistreatment has started, participation or passivity by many members of society makes its continuation more likely. Reasons for frequent passivity by bystanders, who have great potential influence, are discussed. The psychology of direct perpetrators is explored, including reversal of morality due to ideology and the assumption of responsibility by leaders. As the conception is presented it is applied to an examination of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. The possibility of diminishing such cruelty in the world is also discussed.

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