Why People are Cruel

Why People are Cruel

I used to keep abreast of the news, but I find that I no longer can. Why? Because the news is barraged with reports of things cruel people said, cruel people did or cruel new laws that were passed, and I’m finding it too distressing to follow closely.

Similarly, I’ve noticed in my personal life and as a Holistic Brain Health practitioner, cruelty seems to be on the rise.

I was thinking this as I discovered the latest issue of Psychology Today, where the featured article discussed the rise of toxic behavior. According to the global communications firm Weber Shandwick, a record number of Americans (69% ) believe that American has a civility problem.   It was 65% is 2010.

So what is causing the increase in cruelty?

According to the research by Weber Shandwick, most people blame politicians and social media.   As I wrote in my article Why We Lack Control Over Our Thoughts, our environment and what we are exposed to has a profound influence on what we think. If we have any tendency to be cruel, the cruelty we see regularly in the news, in our social media and entertainment gives us unconscious permission to do the same.   We are not immune from our environment. If we were, politicians and advertisers wouldn’t spend as much as they do trying to influence us.

That being said, we don’t all respond to watching cruelty in the same way.

Interestingly, in a study published in 2014, researchers showed that watching violence activates the brains differently in aggressive people than calm people. Aggressive people had reduced activity in the decision making part of their brain (the orbitofrontal cortex), and more activity in the emotional center of the brain (the amygdala).   They also showed a rise in blood pressure.

So if aggressive people respond differently to watching violence than calm people, what makes people unkind in the first place?


Freudian psychologist Heinz Kohut said that sadistic behavior comes from when people become unhinged.   This can happen when people close to you don’t understand and accept you. Expressing rage, hatred or cruelty directed at another person can help people feel like they are holding it together.


Inability to be vulnerable:

Giles Fraser wrote that cruelty stems from the fear of being vulnerable. When we feel neglected or abandoned, a healthy response is to acknowledge our feelings and accept them. But if we deny them, then we won’t admit to ourselves that we are vulnerable, and certainly not to others.   When we don’t accept our emotions, we redirect them elsewhere, and that means that others suffer the consequences.   For more about this, read my article on 3 Reasons Why Just Be Cool is Bad for You, and about the Heart Wall, that blocks us from being vulnerable.


Lack of self-compassion

The Buddhists say that you can’t have compassion for others until you have compassion for yourself. Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of the Buddha, says that this concept hit her when a friend of hers mentioned that she was learning to be her own best friend.   Do you treat yourself as well as you would your own best friend?


Spirit of Abstraction

Alex Lickerman M.D. wrote in Psychology Today that what allows people to be cruel to each other is summed up in the concept of the spirit of abstraction. It is the practice of conceiving of people as functions rather than as human beings. For example, Hitler singled out Germans as “Jews” and in doing so convinced the rest of the German people that they were inferior. We called African Americans slaves, and the Japanese “Japs”. Defining people as a collective function, and associating them with derogatory terms reduced them from being human beings, with hearts, with feelings, and needs just like everyone else.

So when we label people, whether then are in their role at a job, or by their race, it is important to remember that behind those labels are human beings with lives as complicated as our own.   We tend to be able to see the humanity in people that look like us, but we have a tendency to not be able to empathize with those that look different from us.  Challenge yourself to see the humanity in everyone.

So if you find you are becoming less sensitive to the needs of others, or if you know someone who can be cruel, and regrets their behavior, then please share this article with them.  If they struggle to be kind, let them know that we can get straight to the underlying causes and release them using the Body Code.

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1 Comment

  1. Kate
    May 16, 2018

    I agree. Humans degrade other people and animals using words like “gook” or “steak” to hide the fact that another being has feelings and doesn’t want to be killed… As if a word can hide the atrocity of one being against another.

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