Research on empathy and the perpetrator-system


conditions for Empathy 

Research shows a rise in narcissism and a decline in empathy amongst American college students. Empathy is an invaluable human quality we need to cultivate in society. My interest is in understanding how conditions influence morality, behavior, and interpersonal relationships. By understanding how our environment impacts us emotionally and psychologically, we can change the circumstances we live and work in to create a more compassionate society. It is necessary to look at both sides of the empathy spectrum: what circumstances make us more empathetic human beings, and what triggers the devil in us? Hannah Arendt reminds us that the most normal seeming individuals can transform into monsters:  

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”[1]

[1] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1963, p.276



Through my research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trauma, and film studies, I came to understand that the context in which atrocities take place, mirror the way in which individual perpetrators coerce and abuse their victims. This context is what I have called a "perpetrator-system," in which people go down a sliding scale of what is perceived as "normal" behavior and are then being coerced into committing atrocities. Two dominant factors in this process are:  disempowerment and loss of autonomy in the victim/perpetrator, and lack of leadership. As a result of the perpetrator-system, subjects/victims use justification as a coping mechanism to maintain a sense of sanity. I describe this process in greater detail in the paper "Standard Operating Procedure: the sliding scale of normality in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal." 

Though there is no doubt that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions, it is necessary to understand how we can create circumstances that stimulate the better angels of our nature, instead of the other way around. In the BBC Prison Study[2] psychologists S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher found that when people lose faith in their system they are prone to establish an unequal system. They describe leadership as an active, dynamic, and practical process of social identity management. The failure of doing so can cause authoritarian systems to emerge. 

Sergeant Davis, who served a six months sentence for prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal recounts: “Whenever we raised a question, or asked anything to our chain of command pertaining to that particular cellblock [Tier 1A], the answer would always be, ‘Oh, well, that’s MI [Military Intelligence], just do what they tell you to do.’ The lines were crossed and blurred, just messed up. It was a total leadership failure. We depend on our leaders to make the right decisions, to make our job easier. Our leaders failed us, and left us out to dry.”[3] 

Jean Decety in his research on empathy found that identification with the other depends on whether we consider the person to be of an out-group or in-group–the latter meaning someone "who is like us." I realized that another key component of empathy is our ability to identify with the other's vulnerability. You can read more about the power of vulnerability in the paper On Empathy: facing your own vulnerability. 

[2] S. A. Haslam and S. Reicher. Identity Entrepreneurship and the Consequence of Identity Failure: The Dynamics of Leadership in the BBC Prison Study, Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 70. No. 2 (Jun 2007) P 125-147

[3] P. Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure, New York, 2008, p 95 



Creating compassionate communities requires: (I) responsible leadership, (II) inclusion and respect for all members, (III) cohesion, (IV) a safe space for emotion and vulnerability, and (V) members who feel empowered and have a sense of autonomy and purpose. 

We can achieve this by creating innovative applications that enhances mental health and empowers people, developing teaching methods for future leaders, educators, and healthcare workers, and by advising organizations on implementing change.