How Do You Explain Human Cruelty?

What makes one person purposefully hurt another?

Posted Oct 06, 2010 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Years ago, when a close friend of mine decided to come out to her very religious, politically conservative parents, she knew that the chances were good that they would reject her choice and possibly refuse to ever speak to her again. Still, she felt that she could not go on living a lie and wanted them to know the truth about her. She had a wonderful partner whose love and support would help her get through this difficult time. We had long talks about how she should approach her parents. We were young and deeply troubled about the idea that her parents, who had always been strict but loving, could reject their own daughter over something that seemed so basic a part of who she was. But we both knew that it was possible.

Since that time I've had plenty of opportunities to observe and struggle with questions about why people can be so unkind to other people, even those they supposedly love. The distressing incident in which a Rutgers University student streamed to the web images of his roommate involved in physically intimate relations with another man reminded me once again of the unthinking nature—and the tremendous and dangerous power—of prejudice. I want to be clear that none of us knows that prejudice was behind this act. We all need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions based on the limited and simplified data that news reports tend to offer us. Yet, whatever the reasons behind it, the result was that one human being used the internet to inflict emotional pain on another.

Since reading about this episode I have been trying once again to find a way to explain this kind of behavior. Is it the kind of narcissistic lack of empathy that has recently been discussed on the PT website? Since I believe narcissism is a normal (and in some ways healthy) aspect of human nature and empathy is something that develops over time, I am unfortunately leaning towards a more painful conclusion. I think there is something more sinister at work here.

I have been going through some of my books on psychodynamics to try to put together a psychological explanation; but I still don't have it figured out and would like to hear what you think.

Here's what I've cobbled together so far:

— Freud believed that sadism, or the desire to cause pain to another human being, is the result of a mix of sexual desire and aggression, which have biological and psychological bases and are a natural part of human nature. He believed that parents' job in life is to "civilize" their "little heathens," that is, to teach their children to control these natural impulses in order to live in the world with other human beings. He therefore thought that we all have the possibility of acting on these impulses. It's just that some of us have them under better control than others.

— Heinz Kohut was a Freudian psychoanalyst who left the fold in the 1970s. He developed a theory called "Self Psychology," in which he argued that aggression against another person is always psychologically motivated. By this he meant that anger, rage and hate always have emotional and psychological meaning, even though it is not always obvious or easily explained. Sometimes rageful or sadistic behavior results from what he called "fragmentation," which happens when a person feels that he or she is coming unglued. This is often the result, according to Kohut, of a feeling that you are not being understood or accepted by someone who is important to you. Without understanding and acceptance, Kohut believed, we lose ourselves. Rage or hatred directed at another person can be a way of holding ourselves together.

— The British psychoanalyst and author Christopher Bollas says that beneath hatred and hateful behavior lies a profound emptiness. For him rage, anger, and hatred are ways of filling the emptiness. It is, he suggests, better to feel sadistic than not to feel at all.

— Ruth Stein, a New York City psychoanalyst, has written beautifully about terrorists who destroy other people in the name of their god. She feels that they often idealize a supreme being in order to undo their own profound self-hatred. This may also be true in the case of hurt carried out on the basis of religious morality. My friend who worried about coming out to her parents suspected that they did not like themselves very much. The only way they could be convinced that they were good people was to follow a very narrow path of right and wrong. But paradoxically, by rejecting their own daughter for something that harmed no one, they were, it seemed to us, confirming that they were in fact neither nice nor moral.

I think that all of these ideas have something of the truth in them. There is also, of course, the well-known data about children who were hurt, either physically or emotionally, either by their parents or by other people in their lives, who then become adults who are cruel to others. But there are also examples of children who suffered terribly at the hands of others yet become generous and caring and kind adults. (Boris Cyrulnik, a French psychologist and author who is a Holocaust survivor, has written a great deal on this topic.)

So it looks like the professionals haven't figured it out. What about you? I'd really like to know what you think—how do you explain human cruelty?