Cover Story

Regression Toward the Mean

When Victor Nell attends a social function and has to say what he does for a living, he says he is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of South Africa. But during Adolph Eichmann’s* trial, Nell worked for an Israeli radio station. Nell received the courtroom news bulletins in Hebrew and translated them into English. This experience hasn’t escaped Nell’s memory, he said recently. On the contrary, it has guided much of his work as a psychologist who specializes in violence prevention.

“I used some of my Eichmann experience,” says Nell, “to look at what had begun to be the obstacle to violence prevention, which was the lust in all of us to be cruel and cause suffering, and how difficult it is to bring those agents under control.”

The experience also led him to publish a research paper about the nature of cruelty that attracted debate the way Eichmann drew angry stares. In the paper, which appeared in the June issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Nell offers a psychological explanation for cruelty’s prevalence. He proposes that human cruelty evolved out of animal predation millions of years ago. Cruelty helped people survive as foragers and establish social control as urban dwellers. The modern enjoyment of cruelty, he argues, is a product of this adaptation from predation. In the end, this enjoyment leads to such everyday violence as bar fights, child abuse, and sexual assault.

Not everyone is convinced. Several behavioral scientists, whose views were published alongside Nell’s original article, contend that his theory doesn’t hold with current views in social psychology.

“I didn’t think he made a good case of linking what looks like a learning process to an evolutionary process,” Jeff Greenberg, University of Arizona, said recently. “Predation in early hominids … is different than humans killing and torturing other humans. I think they evolved in very different ways.”

Cruelty Started Small
Cruelty started small, Nell argues, with microscopic animals called Cloudinids. These tiny shelled creatures lived about 600 million years ago, during the Proterozoic era. When Cloudinids were first discovered, researchers found tiny rounded holes in the animals’ shells. To Nell, these holes represent the earliest instance of predation in the fossil record.

In the ensuing eons, animals adopted what Nell calls the “pain-blood-death” complex. Certain stimuli — a prey’s terror and struggle, the sight of its blood, and the shrill sounds of death — became reinforced during predation and consumption. Eventually these stimuli became ingrained into mammals and acted as triggers to three distinct aggressive circuits in the brain: prey-related aggression, aggression brought on by anger, and sex-related aggression.

In the seeking and anger circuits, the act of the hunt becomes a rewarding experience for the predator. Neuroscience has shown that opioids, often related to pleasant feelings, are released during predation, argues Nell, citing work by Jaak Panksepp, who studies affective neuroscience at Washington State University. “Far from being aversive, predation is a powerfully rewarding experience even before satiation occurs,” Nell writes.

Nell brings evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging to bear on the sex-related circuit. A 2001 study showed that applying a 114-degree-Farenheit probe to a subject’s skin activated the brain’s reward center — the same area often aroused by sexual activity. “The major thrust of the paper is the reward value of cruelty, and how extremely arousing and sexually arousing cruelty is,” Nell says.

“I think there’s a bit of resistance to conceptualize the foundations of human emotions as something we share with all the other mammals,” says Panksepp, who wrote one of the 25 peer commentaries published along with Nell’s paper. “You’ve got such a robust evolutionary history, but Nell was one of a small group of individuals working at the human level that saw that this should be a no-brainer. It’s not for most academic psychologists.”

As hominids evolved during the Pliocene epoch, which ranges from 10 to two million years ago, instinctual predation turned into tactical hunting. The earliest fossil evidence of hominid meat eating appears in the form of stone tools in east Africa that date back 2.5 million years. Though the act of predation has changed, the rewards of cruelty stayed the same, or perhaps became even greater, Nell argues. Successful hunters provided more nutrition for themselves and for a family, and therefore made more attractive mates.

“What we know from brain science is that the predatory instinct is tightly linked with what people still called the reward system,” Panksepp said recently. “Organisms wouldn’t survive unless that [instinct] had positive feelings associated with it.”

Once humans emerged and began developing societies, some of the cruelty once saved for provisions became an effective tool of governance, Nell continues. Dissention within groups such as early empires in Egypt, India, or China would have threatened survival. One way to deter such dissention was through public punishment. The more elaborate and spectacular the punishment, the more effective the deterrent.

Recent archaeological research seems to support this aspect of Nell’s argument. In the June Cambridge Archaeological Journal, archaeologist D. Bruce Dickson of Texas A&M University analyzed the famous Royal Graves at Ur. The long-standing interpretation of this mass gravesite has been that loyal subjects were willingly buried with their dead leaders. However, after reexamining the position of the graves, the timing of the different sites, and the few extant artifacts, Dickson concludes that Ur is likely a “public transcript … of cruelty staged by rulers.” These leaders orchestrated public sacrifice “to terrorize a restive citizenry and convince themselves and others of their right to rule,” he writes. Within the context of other mass grave sites throughout history, Dickson sees no reason to consider the Royal Graves unique; on the contrary, they “represent a phenomenon of wider historical generality” of public displays of cruelty.

Over time, argues Nell, these social applications of cruelty led to “cultural manifestations of the predatory adaptation,” such as the veneration of war heroes and the entertainment of the Roman arenas. More recently, some behavioral researchers including Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram demonstrated that the most normal of people can display great cruelty in the right situation.

Dashing Dott’s Theory
Nell isn’t the first to advocate the transition from predatory instincts to human cruelty. In the 1950s, another South African researcher named Raymond Dott made similar statements. Dott’s opponents, primarily paleontologist Richard Leakey, argued that what can be considered violence only emerged some 30,000 years ago, when humans became psycho-social beings.

“Dott’s view was attacked with scorn because it was deeply pessimistic, it undermined the basic thoughts of human goodness being a psychological given,” Nell says. “The Leakeys always get better headlines than the Ray Dotts do. Hope is a wonderful thing, but it can become misleading.”

If Nell is a Dott, then several of the researchers who published commentaries can be considered Leakeys. Preeminent among this bunch is Albert Bandura, Stanford University, who writes that cruelty’s functional value is not simply to act as a biological reward. “Expressions of pain and suffering typically inhibit rather than reinforce cruel conduct in humans,” writes Bandura. For example, Nell mentions the glorification of soldiers but fails to recognize those who return from war and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bandura also disputes Nell’s theory that attraction to cruelty explains why people enjoy violent media. Empirical tests of television viewers have found that violence is unrelated to a show’s popularity, Bandura says. “Extensive training and a multitude of social structural influences are needed to produce cruel perpetrators,” he writes, in what appears to be an equally reasonable way to explain the behavior of someone like Eichmann.

Jeff Greenberg, commenting with Spee Kosloff of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College, agrees that behavioral evidence dispels many of Nell’s points.

“Aggression literature shows the importance of learning,” he said recently. “There are things we learn to associate with aggression, like guns, which didn’t exist in ancestral past.”

Greenberg says the most egregious forms of violence are those that are part of what’s considered a culturally legitimate cause. This cultural cruelty appears to date back some 5,000 years — coincidentally, about the date of the Royal Graves at Ur — when human sacrifice became a defensible ritual. Moral defenses of cruelty are explained by the Terror Management Theory, a fairly recent psychological theory that attempts to describe the impact of culture on violence. The theory proposes that humans became aware of their mortality after evolving from hominids. This awareness, in combination with some of the basic biology of preservation, caused in humans a fear of death. In order to control this fear, groups of humans adopt a cultural worldview in the form of religion or communal morality. When this worldview is threatened by another group, that’s when cruelty and violence emerge.

“As cultures got larger and more powerful, levels of human-human cruelty got grander,” Greenberg says. “I see [that cruelty] as intra-species aggression rather than predation.” Many modern hunters have clear ethics and rules about their kill, as do bullfighters, he points out. In addition, some research has shown that viewing excessive violence decreases a subject’s aggressiveness, unless that violence is morally justified. That’s why people might endorse a war against a terrorist but cower at the sight of boxer Mike Tyson unnecessarily biting opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Animal studies have shown that cruelty and affection can serve the same physiological function — that is, either action can reward the brain the same way, argues neuroscientist Mary Dallman of the University of California, San Francisco. After the excited state of predation, animals need to reduce their levels of arousal, which can occur through further aggression or affectionate behavior. The chosen behavior might simply be a matter of which a person learns to use, she argues.

“I think [love and cruelty] are probably the same thing under very different conditions,” she said recently. “But I do quite strongly believe that the conditions can be biased by teaching.” For that reason, she argues, the entire problem of human cruelty could, quite literally, progress with a better understanding of the cliché “make love, not war.”

Decency Through Understanding
Nell’s purpose in writing his paper was not purely academic. He proposes that a full understanding of the gratifications of cruelty will help violence prevention workers do their jobs. “To become a more compassionate human being … one has to begin by understanding the force and the power of the dark instincts,” he said recently. “Only by understanding cruel instincts that are latent in all of us can we work our way through to become compassionate.”

Greenberg says that violence prevention workers already have a strong foundation of behavioral understanding to help them do their job. Psychologists have shown, for example, that violent media can prompt aggression, and that corporal punishment can lead to child abuse.

“We know these things and try to teach them,” he says, “but we don’t have the societal mechanisms to implement them.”

It’s also important to remember that a majority of people don’t enjoy being cruel, Greenberg says. While Nell might consider such hope misleading, he hasn’t lost all of it. He is currently writing a book about cruelty and compassion, which highlights a growing empathy within the past 50 years — particularly as it relates to the environmental movement. The question that remains in his mind is whether this compassion extends beyond intelligence discussion and into human behavior.

We’re certainly not there yet, he says. By chance, the publication of his paper coincided with media reports that surfaced in June that the CIA knew where Eichmann was hiding but didn’t help capture the war criminal. According to the reports, the intelligence agency knew Eichmann was hiding in Argentina two years before the Israeli government independently captured him. Whether such negligence constitutes cruelty is probably subject to debate.  And that’s kind of the point.  What remains clear to Nell is that debating, studying, and ultimately understanding cruelty will lead to new levels of human decency.

“The whole of human history is weighed against a triumph of compassion,” he says, “but it’s worth encouraging.”

* Adolf Eichmann was a lieutenant-colonel in Hitler’s Schutzstaffel — better known as the SS police. It was Eichmann’s responsibility to make sure the trains that carried Jews to concentration camps ran on time. On May 31, 1962, the day Eichmann was hung for his war crimes, he refused a final chance at repentance. One newspaper reports that when Eichmann’s cremated remains were scattered at sea, “no prayers were said for him.”
Benson, P. (2006). CIA papers: US failed to pursue Nazi., 7 Jun.

Dickson, B. D. (2006). Public Transcripts Expressed in Theaters of Cruelty: The Royal Graves at Ur in Mesopotamia. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(2), p. 123-144.

Hall, A. (1999)  Eichmann memoirs published. The Guardian, 12 Aug.

Nell, V. (2006). Cruelty’s rewards: The gratifications of perpetrators and spectators. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29 (Jun), p. 211-257.

Panksepp, J. (1992). A critical role for “affective neuroscience” in resolving what is basic about basic emotions. Psychological Review, 99(3), p. 554-560.

Panksepp, J., & M. R. Zellner. (2004). Towards a neurobiologically based unified theory of aggression. International Review of Social Psychology, 17(2), p. 37-61.

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