Why do some people find it easier to accept torture and assault than others?
A research group of psychologists from Lund University in Sweden have shown that authoritarian people and those who perceive their own group as socially superior to others are often more inclined to accept the use of torture. The thing that unites them is not primarily the urge to defend their own group, but their strong tendency to dehumanise people who do not resemble their own kind.
In psychology there is disagreement on what makes someone commit an assault. Some argue that it is the situation that creates the perpetrator. Another possible explanation, which is the one studied by the Lund research group, is that individual differences make certain people more prone to assault than others.
“There are two types of personalities that are more prone to accept torture than others, and who also claim to be able to perform it themselves – authoritarian people and those who perceive their own group as socially superior”, says Magnus Lindén, researcher in psychology.
People in the first group (Right Wing Authoritarianism) are typically willing to submit to authorities and can be aggressive if ordered to be so. Politically, they are traditional and conservative. People in the second group (Social Dominance Orientation) are characterised by their view of society as a hierarchy, in which they assign themselves a high-ranked position with the right to dominate others.
The Lund researchers studied the attitudes toward assault in the military, in connection with the ongoing war on terror, and the results showed that 18 per cent of students in higher education think it’s OK to use torture under certain circumstances, and among them there was a connection to the above stated characteristics. The example used in the study was the case of the military abuse on Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003.
In their latest study, the Lund researchers studied more closely what exactly makes authoritarian and socially dominant people have an increased tendency to accept torture. Factors such as a strong identification with their own group – i.e. Swedes – and the tendency to dehumanise Muslims were taken into account.
“We discovered that both of these two types of personalities were high on the scale in terms of dehumanisation of Muslims”, says Magnus Lindén.
Lindén believes that their study is to be read in the light of torture becoming a more current issue since 9/11. The boundaries of what is considered permissible have moved, and torture has become more generally accepted.
“You can also see that the number of people exhibiting authoritarian and socially dominant attitudes in leading political positions in society has increased”, says Magnus Lindén.
The study has resulted in two published scientific articles, based on surveys of students and members of the armed forces. One included the case of the torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, and the other focused on the Swedish military intervention in Afghanistan. Articles published in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Magnus Lindén can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or +46 (0)70 307 74 05
Newer article (2016): What makes authoritarian and socially dominant people more positive to using torture in the war on terrorism? http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886915300799
Older article (2012): Right-wing authoritarianism is a risk factor of torture-like abuse, but so is social dominance orientation http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886912003030
International press officer
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