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What Makes Some of Us “Prisoners of Hate”?

Aaron Beck explores the origins of anger, hostility, and violence.

Key points

  • In his book, Prisoners of Hate, Aaron Beck comprehensively explores the cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence.
  • Beck discusses how distortions of thoughts foster "negative framing," an inability to see the uniqueness and complexity of the other.
  • Beck shares how individuals or groups may embrace violence after homogenizing, dehumanizing, and demonizing the "other."

Last month the APA Monitor, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, included an obituary briefly describing the many profound accomplishments of noted psychiatrist Aaron Beck (Rosner, 2022).

Considered the father of cognitive therapy (CT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Beck also left his mark on various areas of study and practice. These included the application of CT and CBT to depression and the development of the Beck Depression Inventory, an assessment tool that is widely used and respected. He also supported the recognition of psychotherapy, founding, with his daughter Judith Beck, the Beck Institute, a CBT training institute.

However, Beck most informed my clinical work with his book Prisoners of Hate, a comprehensive exploration of the cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence. In it, he offers an understanding relevant to individuals, groups, and countries. It is a treatise that looks at destructive behavior ranging from domestic abuse to genocide to war and then offers remedies to address these concerns.

Distortions in Thoughts

Some of his thinking originated in his work with couples in conflict. He found that each partner developed a solidified perspective of the other that undermined their capacity to remember the good times, note the positive aspects of a partner, and even recognize these as being valid. He observed that they had developed rigid generalizations in their thinking that lacked the flexibility to allow for experiencing both positive and negative feelings.

He described this as “negative framing,” a process that left them reacting to the newly formed image of a partner rather than their uniqueness and complexity–as if they were solely negative.

 treety vector/123rf Stock Photo
Vector depicting being hostage to our thoughts
Source: treety vector/123rf Stock Photo

Beck suggested that these distortions in thinking held their attention hostage, thus making them “prisoners of hate.” Through studying individuals prone to anger, he also recognized that they attached a “high value to their social image and status.”

Combined, these perceptions contribute to a predisposition to feel threatened and a victim. They narrow the lens through which events are viewed and can ultimately support the arousal of the following sequence of thoughts:

“An offender wronged me and so is responsible for my hurt and distress.”

“The injury was purposeful and not warranted.”

“Therefore, the offender deserves to be punished.”

With regard to individuals or groups, Beck clearly states that embracing violence requires three distinct shifts in perspective built upon these distortions in thinking. The others, or members of the opposition, are homogenized, made devoid of their unique individuality. Secondly, they are dehumanized and viewed as no longer worthy of empathy or compassion. And finally, they are demonized, viewed as representing the epitome of evil–a perspective that might then justify the escalation to violence.

Beck sees offenders as driven by the above-described distortions, as well as others such as:

  • Personalizing: seeing other people’s actions as directed against him.
  • Misinterpretation of motive: interpreting neutral or even positive intentions as manipulative or malevolent.
  • Overgeneralization: Seeing a single adverse encounter as a rule rather than the exception.
  • Denial: Seeing himself as not playing a role in the interaction or perception.

Such thinking is associated with rigid beliefs such as:

  • Authorities are controlling, disparaging, and punitive.
  • Spouses are manipulative, deceitful, or rejecting.
  • Outsiders are treacherous, self-serving, and hostile.
  • Nobody can be trusted.

Collective Illusions

Beck offers a detailed analysis of how groups can encourage and practice these same distortions in forming their perceptions of other groups. He offers psychological research as well as historical analysis to support his understanding of this process. Most importantly, he highlights how any leader who fuels the activation of such thinking further contributes to pervasive distortion. Significantly, a group's shared information may foster cohesiveness, a feeling of connection that only validates and intensifies distortions and related feelings regarding other groups.

Through these lenses, Beck goes on to explain the formation of stereotypes, prejudice, the psychology of militiamen, and the mobilization of public opinion. His understanding provides attention to detail regarding our understanding of these concepts and their implications for the destructive expression of anger. At the same time, these concepts also help us understand some of the origins of polarization, whether or not it leads to violence.

Beck’s Distinction Between Nationalism and Patriotism

Beck’s distinctions between “nationalism” and “patriotism” provide further understanding when the collective perceptions are those of a nation. He describes nationalism as focused on a “glorified image of the state–its power, prestige, and possessions.” And as such, individuals experience a boost in self-esteem when they identify themselves with this ideology–and when these elements are bolstered.

By contrast, self-esteem declines when these resources are viewed as diminished. This process is similar to that of the sports fan whose self-esteem may be overly attached to the wins or defeats of his favored team.

By contrast, patriotism is described as being “powered by the yearning to belong to a larger community.” This ideology entails a sense of attachment to the state (nation) and a “powerful willingness to make sacrifices in order to ensure its continued security.” Certainly, leaders play a crucial role in helping citizens to define which ideology is to be embraced.

An Antidote to Our “Imprisonment”

As an antidote to such imprisonment, Beck recommends that all of us need to recognize when we may be vulnerable to distortions of thinking that narrow our cognitive and emotional flexibility. Further, this calls for being aware of maneuvers by leaders who wish to promote such thinking as the answer to the complexity of life’s challenges and the anxiety accompanying them.

Real control in our lives has more to do with understanding how our distortions of thinking inhibit our capacity to pause to respond rather than react to our frustrations and related anger. By engaging in self-reflection, we take responsibility for how we feel and respond rather than impulsively attribute our feelings and behaviors to others. Ultimately, this pause allows us to engage in more constructive behaviors in meeting our core needs and desires. It helps us to identify what is in our best interest in the long term–rather than in the short term.

Beck concludes his writing by emphasizing the need to advocate the “Brighter side of human nature”: attachment, altruism, and cooperation. He advocates the development of social and political programs to consider how destructive ideologies fuel the propensity for distorted thinking.

Beck points out that these need to identify social and economic factors that might similarly contribute to such biased thinking. Additionally, he emphasizes teaching values and empathy in early education and urges communicating such skills to parents. Finally, he also highlights the application of CBT to working with individuals prone to anger, individually or in groups.

In Prisoners of Hate, Beck offers a powerful lens for understanding individual and societal anger, hostility, and violence. Certainly, other social, cultural, and economic factors contribute to this process for individuals and groups. And CBT has evolved into a family of cognitive therapies, including acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). However, Beck’s work is as important now as when he first wrote it–a message I’ve been extremely grateful for as a clinician and believe deserves our shared exploration.


Rosner, R. I. (2022). Aaron T. Beck (1921–2021). American Psychologist, 77(6), 791–792.

Beck, A. (1999). Prisoners of Hate. New York, New York, HarperCollins Publishers

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