8 Psychological Mechanisms that Enable People to Hurt Others (The Psychology of Evilness)


Have you ever wondered how people can live with themselves after having done something terrible to others? Read on.

It seems like most people are capable of doing harm to others, as shown in Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment. However, self-reports have also revealed that obeying to hurt others may lead to feelings of anxiety, guilt and agitation.

So hurting others is not without a cost. We probably feel this way because of our innate need to care about others. We are social animals so hurting others, hurts us too.

Albert Bandura once said that people do not engage in antisocial (immoral) behaviors unless they can justify their behavior through a process of cognitive restructuring or rationalization. Indeed, research shows that these eight mechanisms are tightly related to immoral behavior (Gini, 2006).

Here, I present eight psychological mechanisms that enable people to hurt others (Bandura, 2002). These mechanisms enable people to morally disengage and they protect the individual from negative feelings such as guilt or shame that usually follow immoral acts (Bandura, 1991).

1. Moral justification

An immoral act is made personally and socially acceptable by portraying it in the service of moral purposes:

“Radical shifts in destructive behavior through moral justification is most strikingly revealed in military conduct. People who have been socialized to deplore killing as morally condemnable can be transformed rapidly into skilled combatants, who may feel little
compunction…” (Bandura, p. 3).

2. Advantageous comparison

Immoral acts may appear “all right” when a person puts them in contrast with worse acts.

3. Euphemisms

A person may rewrite language so that difficult situations get easier to handle. The use of euphemisms is a way of minimizing the emotional aspects of language, and it helps remove a person’s moral barriers.

Here are some examples of euphemisms from the military:

  • Soldiers don’t kill people, they lose them
  • Bombs are called vertically spread anti-personnel devices
  • Attacks with riffle are seen as “pure surgical attacks”
  • Killing one of your own men is called friendly fire

4 & 5. Displacement and diffusion of responsibility

Obedience to orders from authorities removes the responsibility of the perpetrator to the one giving the order. So, a person may feel “forced” to hurt another person which removes his responsibility. In this way, he obscures or minimizes the agentive role in the harm he causes.

6. Minimizing the consequences

A person may minimize, disregard or distort the consequences of his actions.

7. Depersonalization and dehumanization

One of the most basic human values is the respect for another person’s life. This value is being manipulated through two processes:

  • The anonymous process in which everything human-like is being removed, e.g. people’s clothes are taken off and uniforms are put on instead
  • The linguistic categorizing process in which groups of people are seen as animal-like creatures so that it is easier to do harm to them

Victims are seen as being non-human and therefore having no human rights. Also, victims may be seen as enemies of the state, or as a threat to the subculture in which people identify themselves. In this way, victims are not seen as indivudals but as a group of people.

8. Attribution of blame

A person’s actions are seen acceptable in the light of others’ behaviors. For example, if a person receives a threat, then it is considered to be more acceptable to protect oneself against this threat compared to a non-threat situation. So, aggression is seen as provoked by the victim, and the victim is blamed as a result.

Photo: Nod Young