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Cruelty's rewards: The gratifications of perpetrators and spectators

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 August 2006

Victor Nell*
Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Correspondence to: West Hill House, 6 Swains Lane, Highgate, London N6 6QS, United Kingdom


Cruelty is the deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on other living creatures, sometimes indifferently, but often with delight. Though cruelty is an overwhelming presence in the world, there is no neurobiological or psychological explanation for its ubiquity and reward value. This target article attempts to provide such explanations by describing three stages in the development of cruelty. Stage 1 is the development of the predatory adaptation from the Palaeozoic to the ethology of predation in canids, felids, and primates. Stage 2, through palaeontological and anthropological evidence, traces the emergence of the hunting adaptation in the Pliocene, its development in early hominids, and its emotional loading in surviving forager societies. This adaptation provides an explanation for the powerful emotionshigh arousal and strong affectevoked by the pain-blood-death complex. Stage 3 is the emergence of cruelty about 1.5 million years ago as a hominid behavioural repertoire that promoted fitness through the maintenance of personal and social power. The resulting cultural elaborations of cruelty in war, in sacrificial rites, and as entertainment are examined to show the historical and cross-cultural stability of the uses of cruelty for punishment, amusement, and social control.

Effective violence prevention must begin with perpetrators, not victims. If the upstream approaches to violence prevention advocated by the public-health model are to be effective, psychologists must be able to provide violence prevention workers with a fine-grained understanding of perpetrator gratifications. This is a distasteful task that will compel researchers to interact with torturers and abusers, and to acknowledge that their gratifications are rooted in a common human past. It is nonetheless an essential step in developing effective strategies for the primary prevention of violence.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006

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1. Though not further considered in this paper, psychological punishments that inflict no physical pain are also cruel, as in solitary confinement, public shaming, or social ostracism. The pittura infamanti (defaming portraits) of mediaeval Florence had “fearsome potency as an instrument of official state punishment” (Edgerton 1985, p. 60; see also Miller 1993).

2. Self-inflicted pain is not the preserve of masochists, but a pervasive social phenomenon in contests and sports, especially contact, endurance, and “extreme” sports. Humour and the mutual vulnerability of lovers also hold cruelty in tension. A life without reflexive pain would be dull and colourless, but again, as with psychological pain, and except in passing, I have excluded this domain from the argument.

3. I have dealt with war and massacres from the perspective of the individual actors, and not in their political context: the exhilaration of the machine gunner is relevant, but, in this target article, the military command structures that control these events are not.

4. A wall carving in the north palace at Nineveh shows King Ashurbanipal and his commanders walking over headless enemy bodies, with a beheading still in progress (Bersani c Dutoit 1985, fig. 26). Roman commanders summarily executed rebels: a stone relief (Andreae 1978, Fig. 536) shows the beheading of rebellious barbarians under Marcus Aurelius in about 170 AD.

5. Ariès (1981) chronicles a similar process, within a similar time frame, that has displaced natural deaths from the public to the private domain.

6. This condition recapitulates the famous passage in Hobbes Leviathan: in war, “every man is enemy to every man…. in such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain…; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes 1651/1996, p. 84)