All humans are capable of committing torture and other “acts of great evil”. That is the unhappy conclusion drawn from an analysis of psychological studies.

Over 25,000 psychological studies involving eight million participants support this finding, say Susan Fiske and colleagues at Princeton University in New York, US.



The researchers considered the circumstances surrounding how individuals committed seemingly inexplicable acts of abuse in the midst of the US military’s torture of Iraqi inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004.



“Could any average 18-year-old have tortured these prisoners? I would have to answer: ‘Yes, just about anyone could have.’”, Fiske says.



Many forms of behaviour, including acts of cruelty, are influenced as much by authority figures, peer pressure and other social interactions as by the psychology of the individual, she says.



“If we don’t understand the importance of social context and accept that almost anybody could commit acts of torture under certain circumstances, then we are setting ourselves up for situations where Abu Ghraib [atrocities] will occur again,” Fiske warns.



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