Anyone who has ever played on a team knows the thrill of rooting for your own side’s success while rejoicing at your opponents’ losses. Now ratchet up that gratifying feeling with two other ingredients: an unwavering belief in a vengeful God, and a sense of injury stemming from feeling like a reviled, hard-done-by outsider, and you have some of the precursors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Clearly, the murders are not remotely justifiable. At the same time, such violence is not haphazard. Combine extreme religion’s blinders with social ostracism, then season with the testosterone-driven aggressive impulses often found among disaffected young men and you can end up with a lethal stew.
What’s the evidence? Time and again, social psychology experiments have shown that ordinary people can be spurred to commit horrific acts of cruelty. Giving them authority over arbitrarily defined transgressors can prompt brutality, as the Stanford Prison Experiment—in which…
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