Justifying atrocities leads to psychological acceptance

Harold Mandel's picture
A torture chamber

In this era shockingly torture has often become an acceptable part of the activities of the United States and allied nations which once publicly denounced any acceptance of torture for any reasons at anytime. The American agents and soldiers responsible for implementing torture techniques to break the enemy down have been compared to Nazis by many of their own countrymen. Yet, the torturers like to think of themselves as honorable human beings and they appear to have developed psychological coping mechanisms which gives them a positive reworking of their self-perceptions as torturers.

The literature has been establishing that exposure to atrocities which are committed by in-group members sets off moral-disengagement strategies reported Psychological Science. There has however not been a lot of research on how such moral disengagement affects the degree to which conversations shape the memories of people regarding atrocities and subsequent justifications dealing with those atrocities. Researchers have now found that a speaker’s selective recounting of past events can lead to in retrieval-induced forgetting of related, unretrieved memories by the person speaking and the person listening.

In this study the researchers investigated American participants listening to the selective remembering of atrocities which have been committed by American soldiers, an in-group condition, or Afghan soldiers, an out-group condition, which lead to retrieval-induced forgetting dealing with unmentioned justifications. The results demonstrated that the way people’s memories are shaped dealing with selective discussions of atrocities is largely dependent on group-membership status.

There are often justifications included in stories about wartime atrocities and torture methods, such as waterboarding and beatings, whether or not the rationale is legitimate reports the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in a review of this research. These justifications actually move into people's memories of war, therefore developing rationalizations for the actions of their side.


Lead author Alin Coman, who is an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at the Wilson School, has said that people display motivation to remember information which morally disengages them. By doing this they are able to feel they have absolved themselves or their group from responsibility. The study showed that Americans' motivation to remember information which would absolve American soldiers of atrocities they have committed actually changes their memories of the event.

Coman has pointed out when we retrieve memories, we generally don't remember everything which we have experienced. Instead, we selectively retrieve information from our memory. Simply by retrieving memories those memories are reinforced and are more likely to be remembered in the future. However, important information which is related to these memories may be lost later.

The researchers observed that atrocities were more likely to be remembered by the participants, regardless of whether or not the perpetrator was American or Afghan. However, it was also found that American participants were more likely to remember the justifications which were used for atrocities committed by American soldiers than justifications which were used for atrocities committed by the Afghan soldiers. In other words the American participants were often likely to say of American atrocities that yes they happened but they happened for a reason.

The implications of these findings are compelling. In view of the mind's ability to selectively justify atrocities it appears those responsible are likely to relinquish all considerations of morale and legal responsibility for atrocities when they are in power or the winners. However, from a larger perspective the power of the mind to rationalize torture does not necessarily absolve people from legal responsibility for what may be perceived of as horrible crimes in international courts of law.

It therefore appears imperative that we begin to set higher standards in dealing with torture to begin with in order to avoid a cascade of events which could lead the United States to take on the colors of criminal regimes such as the Nazis and Khmer Rouge and yet insist since we are Americans this is alright. Mankind overall will never accept the position that even though such crimes against humanity are reprehensible it's alright for some people in some nations to adhere to such a path of criminality.