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"All psychopaths are manmade"

What causes soldiers to attack defenseless civilians and war violence to escalate? Lithuanian psychology professor Danutė Gailienė, who has researched the psychological effects of the occupation in her country, points to the central importance of indoctrination and a frighteningly simple mechanism that is also well known from German history.

Professor Gailienė, Russia is fighting a very brutal war in Ukraine. There are many cases of torture, random killings, and rape. The Russian army shells civilian targets such as hospitals, playgrounds … Does this surprise you?
Absolutely not. In Lithuania, we are very familiar with that from our historical experience. During the first and second Soviet occupation and once more in 1991 when we gained independence, Soviet armed forces used brutal aggression even against peaceful civilians. It is typical for the Russian military to use “unnecessary” violence, which means destroying things, leaving trash and excrements, torturing people. When I saw witnesses from Ukraine on TV talking about what they had experienced, it was the same: They can’t see any civilized behavior in it.

Psychological research shows everyone is able to commit violence, even excessive violence. But are there no special character traits which contribute to brutal, violent behavior?
In accordance with researchers who have investigated that in more depth, I would answer: All psychopaths are manmade. What does that mean? Of course, we carry everything in us, the positive and the negative, we all have the potential for aggression. That is our human condition. It is obvious that we inherit different temperaments and different predispositions. But this alone is not enough for a person to become so cruel. From my clinical experience I know that external, social conditions, civilization, play a crucial role in that. In the case of Russia, we are inclined to speak about pathological indoctrination or ideology, not about pathological individuals.

Could you explain this a bit more?
I will give you two examples about how social conditions contribute to such bad behavior. One is from Professor Thomas Elbert and his colleagues from the University of Constance in Germany. He and his team have formulated the concept of “appetitive aggression”. In African conflict areas where teenagers or very young boys were involved in war or armed conflict, they discovered that these children sometimes became excited by violence. These boys are not naturally born criminals or psychopaths. They had just been encouraged to it from a very early age and they had learned that violence could cause pleasure, so they used it not just to defeat an enemy or to defend themselves, but for their own joy. This is a very serious problem and I guess there are such cases also now in Ukraine.

On the other hand, we can look at those people who rescued Jews during the Third Reich. They lived everywhere, in Germany, in Lithuania, in Belgium … It is very interesting for psychological research to find out why they decided to help and even risk their own lives. Psychologists have identified at least three characteristic traits which made them not so “ordinary”. One is, they had loving parents. Second, they had intact families; third, they had either religious or humanistic values.

I know that these are two extreme examples but my intention was to show you how important education and socialization are for guiding our behavior. 

Which means that society teaches people respect for values and fellow human beings …
… and vice versa. We can teach them to “turn off” morality.

And the pathologic ideology you mentioned earlier plays a part in that?
It is a fact well-known from history. In Lithuania, we have been very close to it. We have been watching indoctrination for decades, starting from kindergarten, and how it can create even pseudotrauma. Let me explain that: for us, the period of Soviet and Nazi occupation was a traumatic experience. When Lithuania became independent, it meant happiness, victory. In Russia, on the contrary, step by step and beginning with the memory of the “Great Patriotic War”, Putin started to create a trauma narrative. By saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century, he has made the Russian population believe that they are victims. This is pathological because it is a lie. But it’s hard for people to resist those narratives when they are exposed to it almost all the time.

But how exactly does this contribute to what we see in the war in Ukraine? What is the psychological mechanism behind it?
To put it in short terms, it is moral dissociation. We do not have to talk only about Russia all the time, it has been investigated in Nazi criminals as well. When Hannah Arendt spoke about the “banality of evil”, she showed a way to explore this duality. Dissociation means that you take responsibility from yourself, that you delegate it to the superiors, which enables you to be cruel and relentless to some persons without asking yourself if it could be wrong. This is a very powerful mechanism. You don’t feel responsible, you just act because they decide. And it works – not only for individuals but for societies as a whole.

We should be familiar with that in Germany. But it is still troubling to find out that people can strip off morality to such an extent.
I am also a suicidologist and I have been working for many years in suicide prevention. I remember that when the first suicide bombers appeared we wondered: Is this really suicide? Or is it something else? My colleagues and I agree that there is no other explanation for it: the first step is moral indoctrination, the second step turning off empathy. You don’t care about yourself, you just do what others tell you to do … It sounds quite mechanical but that’s the mechanism behind it.

And the feeling of being a victim you have just mentioned, does it also help to feel justified? To think that Ukrainians are “traitors” …
… yes, and even more. Russians are told that Ukraine is in the wrong hands. Ukraine has to be rescued from bad Nazi leaders. All of this adds to my main idea: dissociation, switching off moral responsibility, delegation to superiors. Then people become objects to you.

Does this also mean that these criminal acts do not leave any traces in the perpetrators themselves?
This is a legitimate question although we should take the victims’ perspective first and not forget that they are more damaged than perpetrators. The latter have mechanisms to cope with it. Conscience is a very plastic thing, you know.

But yes, their deeds can damage them as well. Violence is very dangerous for personality. I’m sure that many of those who will come home will continue this criminal behavior, there will be alcohol and drug abuse. Binge drinking is very typical, but alcohol also increases aggressivity. From research, even from our own history, we know that active collaborators with either the Soviet or Nazi occupiers often became alcohol-dependent or committed suicide.

Yet soldiers must obey orders from their superiors. From your point of view, how important is it to teach them that they still have to make their own moral judgments?
It is extremely important because it means prevention of what we are talking about here. Of course, moral education may also be more challenging than just training and discipline. Apart from that, you need well-educated generals and officers. Soldiers watch how they behave, how they speak, how they make decisions. From what we can see, Russian generals are often rather brute, frequently cursing and swearing, for example. This always creates a certain atmosphere in an army.

The war in Ukraine shows us once again where what I call “moral destruction” of people can lead to. Trying to impose rules and teaching soldiers empathy – although this may sound like a contradiction – will not rescue us from war. But at least it can make it more humane.

Dear Professor Gailienė, thank you very much for the interview.

Questions by Rüdiger Frank.

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Dr. habil. Danutė Gailienė is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Vilnius University.  She earned her Master’s degree in Psychology from the Vilnius University in 1974, her Doctoral degree in Social Sciences/Psychology from the University of Moscow in 1985 and her Habilitation from the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas in 2001. She initiated very first studies on psychotraumatology in Lithuania, especially on traumatizing effects of long-term traumatization. Author of many scientific articles and books. Dr. Gailienė serves on editorial boards of several professional journals, including “European Psychologist” and “Psychology”.