40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2005
Robert Waller has written an exceptional explanation of how every human is tempted and entrapped by situations, people, attitudes and personality traits that leads one to commit evil. It is these small acts of evil that can build, distract and cumulate in the horrors we see on the news and respond "not me!"
I have used Becoming Evil as an additional book in my Social Psychology class for three years and students always walk out talking about it. Other professors are constantly asking me to see this book saying students are talking about in their classes, in sororities/fraternities and other organizations. One student told me that after reading this book suddenly she understood how pledging a sorority should be changed. Another student wrote me from military training and said how he was beginning to understanding how easy it was to create a mindset of destruction and killing without looking back. One mother in my class told me that the book has deeply impacted how she parents her children.
I deeply believe this is an extremely valuable book. Very organized, easy to understand, and rooted in compelling real life examples of extraordinary evil committed by individuals that we begin to realize look, act and who were just like us.
I have had a hard time finding another book to use in my class that has touched students to the depth of Becoming Evil. I hope others find it equally soul touching and reflective.
37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2004
This work shows why explorations of the nature of human nature are not just the stuff of ivory towers. It adds an evolutionary psychology element to previous discussions of genocide with good effect. So one gets some of the ideas of Tooby, Cosmides, Sober and Wilson's "Unto others", Pinker, etc. in the picture. It is also well written and engages the reader emotionally. The evolutionary psychology, though, is only one fundamental factor among many. The author's point is to show all of the various factors that influence a potential actor in genocide, and the situational influences dealt with by social psychology loom large.
Nevertheless, there is an interesting lack of self-awareness of the use of a repeated concept. It is very common to refer to someone who commits an evil act as being inhuman. That dehumanizes the perpetrator. But as Mr. Waller so beautifully explains, it is well within ordinary human nature to have the potential to commit acts of extraordinary evil. So it may be evil, but it is not inhuman. Furthermore, the book explains that dehumanizing others is part of the process that can lead to genocide. In trying to characterize these evil acts, the author uses some of the same dehumanizing mental constructs that lead to such evil acts. Ironic, no?
But that is a minor point. It is quite customary to refer to evil acts as being inhuman. The book is excellent, if sobering.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2009
I purchased this book because it was a requirement for a Political Psychology college course I'm taking this semester. In the last month or so, our class has analyzed and discussed this book thoroughly. Waller provides a four-part conceptual model in order to explain why he believes genocide and mass killing occur. He also writes about specific case examples at the end of each chapter in order to further articulate his feelings. Anyway, Waller seems to believe very strongly in one "ultimate influence" in order to explain our behavior--evolutionary biology/psychology precede and precipitate his other three "proximate influences," which are social construction of cruelty, cultural construction of worldview, and psychological construction of "the other." He contends that we, as humans, are programmed to committ evil as a result of natural selection; that is, our ancestors survived because of their ability to defeat potential enemies within a scarce realm. Academic stuff aside, this book is very easy to read, incredibly interesting, and is a great start for those who would like to delve into this fascinating subject.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2003
The editorial reviews above and the publisher's description are accurate about the content. I want to add that this book is well worth reading. The author covers a great deal of research on the topic of man's inhumanity to man and presents the various theories and arguments with an elegance and precision that make this comprehensive book easy, and were it not for the subject matter, pleasurable to read. For anyone interested in the challenge of explaining violence in all its 20th century awfulness, this is an excellent place to start.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2006
After buying this book and reading it myself, I loaned it to my brother and then gave it to my local library where I hope it will be read by many others.
Mr. Waller undertakes a difficult topic -- how it is that ordinary, moral, "law-abiding" human beings can change into perpetrators of genocide. The idea that something like this could happen to any one of us is frightening, indeed, but the best way to protect ourselves is to understand the process. Waller explains this clearly and helps us to understand that the Nazis and other genocidal groups were not insane or monstrous - they were normal people who had undergone a transformation which could occur to anyone in the "right" (i.e., "wrong") circumstances.
This book would be an important addition to libraries everywhere, and I also hope that it will be used in colleges, universities and even high schools.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2011
Becoming Evil is a fascinating book about how ordinary people partake in acts of genocide.
The book's major flaw is that is that at times it comes across as overtly academic. As someone who was nor reading the book for a course, I found the first third of the book mechanical as it went about presenting various academic arguments in a contrived manner.
But once the author allowed himself a bit more freedom to discuss the subject matter, the book became gripping reading and made several compelling arguments that made me re-examine my beliefs in regards to the subject matter.
The most gut-wrenching sections are the extracts from first-hand accounts of those who witnessed genocidal acts. It makes for harrowing reading but is absolutely necessary to raise our awareness about this most brutal of crimes.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2011
Genocide, despite universal horror of it, is still a regularly recurrent obscenity. Attributing it to evil is understandable, but how can it really be prevented? Could understanding its origins help?
James Waller, a psychologist from Washington, has made an profound contribution to this quest. He closely analyses the evidence of personality profiles and behaviours of the perpetrators of such atrocities, and makes startling discoveries.
Their personalities are within the normal range. Perhaps some slight skews [towards being overconfident, authoritative, somewhat stressed, not the most socially skilled, easily led], but nothing out of the ordinary.
It seems that extraordinary evil is most often perpetrated by unremarkable men and women.. Given the appropriate toxic blend of propoganda, moral rationalisation, cultural beliefs, manipulation,and peer pressure, any one of us could become a killer.
Deepseated `ingroup/outgroup' responses, susceptibility to authority, and a capacity for desensitisation and denial, can be mobilised to appalling effect.
The book is a powerful plea for humility. It ends with the hope that from acquiring greater understanding of the causes of genocidal behaviour, might be developed some ways of diminishing its terrifying reach .
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2006
I was always fascinated with the question of human cruelty and the history of genocides, and after researching review on Amazon.com, settled on this book by James Waller. I was 100% right. It's incredibly well-written. Very easy to read, written in clear language in short chapters. Thoroughly researched. James Waller references and examines all the works that have been written on this topic before. His conclusions are profound, and dare I say it, correct.
It's a flawless book. It brings together history and psychology in a language that is very relevant and easy to read on an very important subject. I'd recommend this to anyone without a hesitation. Not just educating, but also enjoyable.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2014
Is there a common pattern or patterns that can explain how human beings come to a point where they can commit genocide? Are there indicators in advance of a genocide, can we act in time to prevent it, and do we have the political will to do so? Waller surveys recent work and opposing views in history, sociology and psychology and frames his chapters with first person accounts.
Early work done in the 50s and 60s such as Adorno's F-scale was used to frame discussion about authoritarian personalities believed to explain Nazi-like behaviour - yet Waller allows that the methodology was criticized for focusing on fascism on the right and ignoring the threat of communism on the right. Hanah Arendt's contention of "the banality of evil" (pp95-99) is that it was indifference, not malevolence that made the followers of Nazi policy malleable, which is also criticised by Holocaust historians such a Raoul Hilberg not accounting for the enthusiasm and pride that Nazis such as Eichmann had for their work. Browning's study of Police Battalion 101 showed that many of the perpetrators were in fact quite ordinary men. In Hohne's assessment of the Nazi death squads (pp67) they were not sadists but "family men brought up in the belief that antisemitism was a form of pet control". Though given the option of opting out of particular operations, the vast majority remained on duty out of loyalty to the group. In particular the work of Henri Tajfel demonstrated that even small artificially introduced labeling differences between randomly assembled groups could be manipulated into creating hostile reactions. Particularly interesting was Robert Lifton's "doubling" theory (pp111) which suggested that cognitive tension over the act of violence caused the perpetrator to create a second self, a Jekyll vs Hyde however Waller counters that the evidence for this is weak and in that the two personalities were so permeable as to make the idea superfluous.
While not a predictor, the desire for conformity appears common, both in terms of emulating the aggressiveness of other but also as a justification for diminishing and devaluing the humanity of others. Thus Naziism centralized the ideal of racial purity and exaggerates characteristics of other "races" as marks of inferiority. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge created a rigid definition of themselves as the in-group and incited for the elimination non-conforming individuals. Kinship or association with references to motherland, fatherland, "brotherhood" or through membership in a group is invoked as a unifying principle. Genocide is also a rebellion against complexity, a belief in zero sum dynamics wherein if one's adversary does well it must be explained in terms of an unfair advantage requiring retribution. Quoting psychologist/sociologist Ervin Staub (pp184), "when an ideology of antagonism exists, anything good that happens to the other inflames hostility. The ideology makes the world seem a better place without the other."
The coverage of events is representative, not comprehensive with a scope including the American Indian Wars, the Armenian Genocide, Genocides of the 2nd World War, East Timor, the massacres of the Mayans of Guatemala, The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia and the Hutus and Tutsis Rwanda. This second edition ends with a brief look at recent events in Chechnya and Sudan.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2009
As stated by the author, the central thesis of this challenging book is that it is ordinary people, like you and me, who commit extraordinary evil. The position is difficult to admit and to comprehend. Evil is a concept in all cultures and a common belief is that it is caused by a few extraordinary individuals--ghouls and blood fetish psychopaths. But history is loaded with examples of diabolical behavior committed by otherwise apparently normal individuals. How do we account for the fact that the 20th Century was the century of genocide? How do we account for the fact that the most inhumane behaviors occurred in "civilized" countries? If those who dropped prussic acid into the showers at Auschwitz were not Catholics and Protestants, they were most likely the sons and daughters of Catholics and Protestants. This from the land of Bach and Goethe. The relevant question is not, "How could they do that?" but rather,"What are the things lurking in my subconscious and in my culture that could motivate me to do that?" The self-righteous may recoil at the notion, yet they may be the most dangerous among us.
A Greek philosopher once remarked, "The unexamined life is not worth living." This book requires self-examination. It is not an easy read, but rather a text for those who don't mind leaning over the abyss and gazing into Dante's Inferno, knowing beforehand that, at times, you will be staring right into a mirror. It should be required reading in ethics classes and all programs in evolutionary psychology.