Social and Psychological Studies of Genocides

Any genocide is a catastrophic phenomenon, the occurrence of which at first glance seems fundamentally inexplicable. The horrors of this process seem to be contrary to human nature, and reflections on human losses and the incredible cruelty of what is happening significantly destroy the idea of ​​what a person is capable of and what can be done in the name of a goal. Other questions relate to how this goal arises and how a person internalizes a worldview that is inherently insane and evil. Social and psychological studies of genocides help explain these processes and understand why people commit immoral acts and are willing to support evil. This essay analyzes Gourevitch’s “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” and Milgram’s “Behavioral study of obedience” (Gourevitch, n.d.; Milgram, 1963). Both address why people follow morally unacceptable orders. Based on Gourevitch’s reflections and testimonials from victims and comparing and contrasting them with Milgram’s study, the paper outlines the reasons that the authors provide to account for immoral behavior.

The research of Milgram (1963) was motivated by the desire to understand how the practices of inhuman behavior and suppression of the individual can arise within the framework of the state apparatus, by the desire to explain how respectable citizens could, on a massive and voluntary basis, carry out criminal orders. The essence of Milgram’s experiment was to determine the limits of a person’s patience in conditions when a person needs to inflict physical pain on his kind, to follow orders, violating generally accepted moral prohibitions. The experimenters wanted to understand how soon people would stop following orders to torture the “student” (an actor in the next room who simulated unbearable suffering, including with the help of audio recordings) and challenge authority. To the surprise of the organizers, almost none of the subjects used their right to refuse. None of the people who reached the extreme point in their “punishment” went to find out how the “disciple” was feeling. The situational analysis of the subjects’ behavior gave the scientist reason to say that, being within the framework of the hierarchical structure supported by the authority, the individual essentially loses their behavioral traits.

It is these research findings that help to understand the nature of violence and genocide in Rwanda. Milgram views obedience as a psychological mechanism linking individual action to a political goal. The researcher notes that many people included in socially approved hierarchical structures and institutions are ready to kill and rob by order. At the same time, they would never do it in their personal lives and of their own free will since submission to authority removes responsibility for their actions and justifies in their own eyes. Obedience to orders to commit violent actions is not motivated by the inherent cruelty of a person, as many psychologists believed, but primarily determined by a complex of ideas and norms that make a person obey authority, not the voice of conscience or even common sense. As Gourevitch (n.d.) writes, “It must be conceived as the means toward achieving a new order, and although the idea behind that new order may be criminal and objectively very stupid, it must also be compellingly simple and at the same time absolute… What is required above all is that they want their victims dead. They have to want it so badly that they consider it a necessity” (p.2). Thus, individual actions become an instrument in achieving a political goal that has nothing to do with individual ideas about acceptable and necessary. However, at the same time, it is the ideology that penetrates individuals and acts on the micro-level. Thus, specific ideologists and politicians should ultimately be responsible for immoral acts committed under duress.

Milgram (1963) also states that his team’s experiments demonstrated how the deeply rooted principle of not harming people came into conflict with an equally strong disposition to obey. It is noteworthy that most of the participants in the experiment negatively assessed their behavior but did not find the inner strength to stop their actions. The system of subordination and hierarchy removes responsibility from the individual and can have far-reaching consequences. When an individual acts on his own, conscience plays a significant role. Nevertheless, when it acts as part of the overall structure, directives coming from a higher level are not subject to internal moral criticism. Only the impulses that arise within the individual in the autonomous model are regulated and controlled in this way. According to the scientist, it is easier for a person to shirk responsibility when he serves as an intermediate link in the chain of evil and is removed from the final consequences of his actions. Moreover, the formalization and fragmentation of the process can lead in practice to the fact that there are no people responsible for the final result, which also removes a significant part of internal moral doubts.

Gurevich also shows the context in which the process of adopting immoral behavior by a specific group of persons fruitfully proceeded. This is the so-called culture of fear. He quotes Nkogoli: “Rwandan culture is a culture of fear… Just let us pray, then kill us, ‘or’ I don’t want to die in the street, I want to die at home ‘[… ] When you’re that resigned and oppressed you’re already dead. It shows the genocide was prepared for too long. I detest this fear. These victims of genocide had been psychologically prepared to expect death just for being Tutsi. They were being killed for so long that they were already dead “(Gourevitch, n.d., p.5). The genocide did not arise anywhere, and the victims were already psychologically ready for oppression, while the local radio station RTLM played a vital role in unleashing the massacres in Rwanda, which has become a classic example of media disseminating hate speech. Milgram implicitly confirms these conclusions since he makes an important observation that, in contrast to widespread political practice, “victims” of electric shock were not denigrated or dehumanized during the experiment. Thus, the psychologist believes it can be assumed that in the conditions of appropriate information processing of the subjects, they would switch the current switches with even greater ease.

Moreover, Rwanda was already a society with a high level of authority subordination. Gourevitch (n.d.) documents another testimony: “Conformity is very deep, very developed here … In Rwandan history, everyone obeys authority. People revere power, and there isn’t enough education. You take a poor, ignorant population, and give them arms, and say, ‘It’s yours. Kill. “They’ll obey. The peasants, who were paid or forced to kill, were looked up to people of higher socio-economic standing to see how to behave. So the people of influence, or the big financiers, are often the big men in the genocide. They may think that they didn’t kill because they didn’t take life with their own hands, but the people were looking to them for their orders. And, in Rwanda, an order can be given very quietly” (p. 5). Additional explanatory factors can be seen from this quote: poverty of the population, lack of education, and a high level of authority obedience. Also, the term conformism helps us better explain the massiveness of what is happening since it is a change in behavior or belief resulting from real or imagined group pressure.


Gourevitch, P. (n.d.). We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. [doc file]

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal Of Abnormal And Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.