The Oxford Martin School Blog
What's happening in the head of a gunman?
20 Apr 2012 0 comment(s)
A group of about 100 women lay stripped of their clothes, face down on the ground. Two men, bearing rifles, are shooting them, one by one. This isn’t some fictional drama. It’s a scene from a terrible act of the Second World War. What is it that makes human beings capable of such horrendous acts of violence? Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon is interested in what went on inside the heads of those two gunmen – the psychological phenomena that are a part of the conflict process; what he terms “catastrophic dehumanization”. He outlined his research at a lecture at the Oxford Martin School, called: Catastrophic dehumanization: the psychological dynamics of severe conflict.
Have you ever experienced road rage? Most of us recognise that moment when you flip from being a sane, thinking, caring driver, to an angry, aggressive and even dangerous motorist capable of doing serious damage to someone else. Ok, road rage seems hardly comparable with Homer-Dixon’s examples of catastrophic dehumanization - the holocaust, machete attacks in Rwanda and the Vietnam War - but it helps us understand what he is getting at.
Homer-Dixon explained his thinking, “Current scholarship provides some understanding of the types of dehumanization and the social conditions that help it occur, but there is little understanding of its psychological mechanisms. Studying human conflict, I started to see common patterns. Most of the capacity to behave in horrific ways is from the circumstances – I want to understand the causal mechanisms involved.”
According to Homer-Dixon, dehumanization involves three key factors:
- De-individuation of members of other group (seeing them not as individuals)
- The application of highly pejorative caricatures or stereotypes
- Denial of the moral legitimacy of other group’s way of life, interests, actions, and even existence
This process means that you are no longer able to identify with members of the ‘other’ group. However, a level of empathy is still apparent (and it is this that allows the aggressors to see what would hurt their opponents the most).
In an attempt to understand the causal mechanisms of catastrophic dehumanization, Homer-Dixon has identified three key variables: identity (ranging from inclusive to exclusive and antagonistic), justice (ranging from just to unjust) and structural constraint (ranging from strong to weak). He believes that it is the strength or weakness of each of these variables, in relationship with each other, which can cause that ‘flip’ into a state of dehumanization. For example, when your identity is inclusive, you perceive no ‘outgroup’ and can identify with any member of the population. You can assess your situation in society as being fair and just, or unjust. And the structural constraints are your perception of constraint or latitude within society.
It is when structural constraint breaks down, society is divided into them and us, and we feel a strong sense of injustice that the flip into dehumanisation can (and does) take place. The question then, is how to create and maintain the balance of these three key variables and how to prevent violent conflict when that balance is upset?
- Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon is Director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation, University of Waterloo, Canada. Read his biography here
- Read more about his research
- Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon answers questions about his research
Watch the video of this presentation
- This blog comes from the seminar "Catastrophic dehumanization: the psychological dynamics of severe conflict"