What Causes a Person to Be Intentionally Cruel?

What causes a person to be intentionally cruel? Is it carelessness? A genetic predisposition involving a lack of empathy? A lack of proper nurturing? A culturally indoctrinated tendency?

Scrawled faceIn my search for answers to the toughest philosophical questions, I find myself being enlightened in the most unusual ways; and often, by the most unexpected people.

The other night, I was watching a show called “Scared Straight“, in which young offenders and troubled youths visit hardened criminals in prison in order to get a taste of criminal reality. One the convicted felons said something that stuck with me because of its poignancy. He said, “Hurt people hurt people.”

There are so many ways to interpret this: I got hurt, so I’m going to hurt others. Pain is all I know, so what else can I give? I have so much pain, I have to get rid of it onto others. Others deserve to suffer because I did. I had no choice so why should anyone else? I don’t want to be alone in my hurt. I need to share it.

Desperation is the common thread.

Any feeling felt strongly enough is a feeling that imposes the desire to share it. When you are in love, you floats. You wish to shout from the mountain tops about your potently bursting feelings. The same thing happens when you are in pain, and perhaps, a potently bursting negative feeling deserves no less tribute. In any case, human beings have a social proclivity towards sharing feelings.

In the case of hatred, anger or violence, the emotion is often so horrible and powerful that the person feeling it wants to get rid of it, and since the emotion is so volatile, the expression of it tends to be as well. In addition, even if on some deep moral level a person knows that hurting others is wrong, the compulsion to eradicate the bad feelings, on a psychological level, is prevalent. The need to not feel intensely negative all the time overrides the need to walk a moral or ethical path.

In essence, I think it is very likely that the act of imposing pain on others might be merely symptomatic of overflowing negative emotions. Every person has a threshold for pain; the breaking point is when the dam of self control breaks and the pain floods out. I would go so far as to say this a survival mechanism we are born with.

Adaptationist thinking about physiological mechanisms, such as the heart, lungs, and immune system, is common in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary psychology applies the same thinking to psychology, arguing that the mind is a modular structure similar to that of the body with different modules having adapted to serve different functions. Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behaviour is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.

We are biologically programmed to survive. Psychologically, when a person feels fearful and hurt all the time (due to inappropriate neural networking, a person can feel threatened by even things and people that are no threat to them in reality), fight or flight syndrome kicks in and puts them in offensive mode.

To take this point further, if a child is born into an abusive life and learns nothing but abuse, pain, fear and intimidation, they will not only be conditioned to think that this type of feeling is normal (in other words, the nurture side of things conditions them to believe that this is the way things are), but they might also feel an even deeper conditioning based on the biological and social need to connect with others to share what they have experienced. In essence, if the method of connection is created in a chaotic mind, it often presents in a chaotic or harmful way. This is where is gets really interesting for me as a philosopher.

If human beings are deprived of meaningful social connection, studies have shown they tend to become hateful and violent, even insane. So in a way, inflicting, imposing or sharing their negative emotions on the world and those in it is a way of sustaining and connecting with what remains of their humanness. It is a (perhaps psychologically deviated) method of touching the spirituality of human being itself that in reality, a violently abused child, for instance, may have never actually experienced.

In life, I have little sympathy for people who choose to hurt others simply because they are in pain. But this does not stop me from wanting to understand why people deal with their pain by sloughing it off onto others.

I believe all overcompensations, psychological chaos, hyper-emotional states and unreasonable decisions are made due to an imbalance in the mind, caused either by bad nurturing or a lack of connection to nature. Without a good balance of both mother nature and nurture, ego is allowed to drive the bus, when it should be sitting at the back of it, forced to be quiet while the metaphorically and sometimes annoyingly cheerful possibilities of happy driving songs echo through the mind.

With the ego at the wheel, anything is possible. Without properly established boundaries, human empathy and natural connection, “anything” is usually pushed into the chaos of ubiquitous darkness. Without the emotional equipment necessary to build appropriate caring relationships, in the empty vacuum of the human soul, one will create something else. That something is typically highly emotional, as there is perhaps an even stronger emotional desire to be met, as it never was met properly, but emotional in a way that is inappropriate, hurtful or intentionally cruel. But again, underneath even the worst intentions is perhaps the simple human desire to be a part of something else: To share an experience with another. To connect.

To say that hurt people hurt people makes sense to me. But what of unhurt people who hurt people? How do we explain the fact that some people with great lives, great upbringings, lots of love and opportunities, in some cases, still seek to impose harm on others? What of all the hurtful games in society, the lying, the cheating, the bullying, media intimidation, idle gossip and voyeuristically bizarre reality television shows? Have our minds become bored with survival (as in developed countries, anyway, we have all our basic needs met), and thus, we need something else to occasionally push our minds into “fight or flight mode”, in order to feel alive?

I think it might be just that. Human beings are bored with the five-senses world and have pushed it into the heights and depths of depravity and debauchery out of boredom for something more. I believe that people lie to themselves about why they do what they do as a way to deny that they are in fact propagating the parts of themselves they do not wish to see, and further, to mask the fact that they could be much more if only they looked.

To avoid all sorts of pain, we hide behind lies as a way to avoid the fear of “the truth”, whatever that might be. We lie to hide nefarious intentions and perceived emotional insecurities and ineptitudes that we feel ashamed of and/or do not wish to face. But even without nefarious intentions behind self delusions and lying, there is insecurity. Insecurity is ego’s loud and brutish voice, which shouts to us in our weakest moments to act and react in ways that will have the greatest impact.

To lie is to hide inside of ego’s belligerent “right story”. To propagate the delusion of the importance of “me” is ego’s only purpose and it will fight to the death to maintain itself.

So, cruelty is perhaps rooted in ego’s need to survive and propagate, instead of in our “being”. But no matter what the reason, I find these types of behaviours self-mutilating. Facing the ugliness inside is not worse than lying about the fact that it’s there, in my opinion. Never mind the fact that our personal and subjective ideas about “the ugliness” we need to hide or lie about is in many cases the result of some ridiculous story that ego clings to out self-preserving desperation. Or, in the case of a person born into horrible circumstances, the “ugliness inside” was something imposed that is not truly us. Ego would have us believe otherwise, of course, but with right intention, any mind can be rewired. Every person can take the desire to be intentionally cruel and transform it into something ego cannot even touch, let alone understand.

“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”.**



* Confer, Easton, Fleischman, Goetz, Lewis, Perilloux & Buss, 2010; Buss, 2005; Durrant & Ellis, 2003; Pinker, 2002; Tooby & Cosmides, 2005

** The motto of the American Christopher Society (founded 1945), said by the Society to derive from ‘an ancient Chinese proverb’.


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  1. avatarLVJ says

    Well ya just like so many people here I don’t really know why some people are cruel when there is no need for it: all I can say is that environment is not the only thing, and that (some) people do it to get a response; other then that I don’t really know.

    However I would like to address the way in which you appear to regard “ego”; you see in my experience I have come to see myself, “is” and other life as basically organic machines: as well as otherwise knowing that there is/are reason(s) for every part of us; if there was not some sort of benefit to “it” (whatever it might be) then we would not evolved with it as a part of us. Ego so far as I understand is basically there to try to keep us from “drowning” or otherwise losing ourselves; the question then is how do we function with (all of our selves of cours but in this case) with it? And for a very long time I struggled with this in also understanding that all are equel though all are not the same: and I kept thinking well I know I’m awsome but for that we are all equel so how does that work? Intel I finally realized that YES I am awsome and so is everybody else, no one is better no one is worse we are all equel though we are not the same; because you see what I realized is that there is a big difference between saying that one is awsome and saying that others are worse. And thus the “conflict” was resalved not by shutting my ego up but by “properly” embracing it; as with any other part of the: for again everything of the may not be there for any preticular reason but there is/are reasons for everything of the being there: even if they are not abvious at first.

  2. avatarChristine Medina says

    I am experiencing a family member that had a great upbringing to lie and be cruel. I am trying to make sense of what is going on. This article is very helpful and I was hoping there was a way I could get a copy of it.
    Thank you,

  3. avatarMark says

    Great post, Mary Ellen,

    I’ve been doing 12 step work around compulsive financial issues, mainly “under-earning” and self-deprivation despite having masters degrees and loads of interdisciplinary skill sets. In coming into the part of the work where we make amends to others, I’ve come to realize that most of the amends I have to make are to myself. I’m really grateful to have seen this post, because it’s giving me a reality check against what I seem to have learned in an abusive family and amongst bullies at school.

    You see, I’ve had a number of savage bullies on my amends list, wondering if there was something I did to deserve the unsolicited treatment I received. There “must” have been something I did. Everybody knows that. Well, they don’t, and that’s the part about cruelty that so many of us don’t get – the fact that it lingers on and on, tearing us apart inside for years afterward because we can’t make sene of it, and come to believe that it must be our fault somehow. I too was given the great advice to ignore it and it’ll go away, they’re envious, etc. Bullsh*t. So I was lied to as well.

    Even if I had done something annoying to one of these kids to get things started (and I honestly can’t remember having done so, besides maybe just being timid and nervous from all the abuse I was already getting), I certainly got paid back a million times over with the humiliation, shaming, judgment and abuse I got in return.

    Your post is helping me to accept that it wasn’t my fault. And that’s the beginning of being able to forgive others at all. I’m human too, and have done a few crappy things in my time as well. But it’s time to let go of the “philosophy” that tells us that inexcusable human behavior is all some punishment from above that we just have to live with because we ourselves are rotten to the core in some unknowable way.

    Thanks again.

  4. avatarvictoria says

    I had to reply to this article . Specifically the quote , hurt people hurt people I grew up in a big family one of six girls and a boy. My father was physically and mentally very abusive some family members say he sexually abused them but I don’t recall that. I was also brutally bullied in school. I with drew within myself and had obsessive thoughts of dark things, I lived in constant fear I never once thought of hurting another person all my pain was stored in my hurting heart. I would not even hurt any living thing my empathy was and is overwhelming I guess you could say I continued to hurt myself . I did everything I could to get better and I have. I believe some people are born without a conscious or they dont develop one. I never wanted to cause anyone pain because I knew even as a very small child that it was cruel and wrong and more importantly that it would hurt someone . Maybe I was lucky but I prefer to believe that we have a choice and I chose that voice of empathy not indifference to others. Being abused is a push over the edge for those who are already born damaged.

  5. avatar says

    When the only prospect going forward for your threatened self involves projecting negativity, you do what it takes to survive. And for the others, they are merely unknowledgable. Stupidity is selfish, not necessarily to the contrary.

  6. avatarcrocro says

    You wrote an interesting article.

    I agree with Ellen,
    kids a mean.
    People too.

    I was looking on the internet but only very few people reported hurting others intentionnaly. This do not correspond to what I see in a work place on a daily basis.

    Mary Rose,

    Some people will become mean because they had too much bad experience in life. But most of them wont.
    The people that hurts other mostly are the one who doesnt understand that pain because they never feel it themselves. This is my opinion.

  7. avatarEllen says

    I know a lot of people who have been intentionally cruel, both physically and mentally. For anyone who thinks that people aren’t intentionally cruel, look at what happens everyday in schools across the country; kids bullying other kids on a notorious level. Having been bullied all through school, I have to say it was all intentional. If it is not intentional, and there is a valid disorder, then why aren’t bullies removed from school? They are all havoc wreakers! You can ask someone why he/she chooses to be mean or cruel to someone, but asking a bullying child, you won’t get a straight answer, because they wouldn’t be able to tell you anything, except “’cause I feel like it”, or “he’s ugly”, etc. The excuses that I would get from teachers and other bystanders is “just ignore it, and it will stop”, or “she does it because you gave her a response”, or ” he does it because he envies you”. Throughout my whole life, I have heard all kinds of excuses for bullies, etc., and I have always believed that these lines were just a load of crap.

    Because I have had negative experiences from bullying and other cruelties, I can be empathetic because I know how it feels, but I really don’t know what I can do to help fix anything because I was never given any kind of inputs or examples on how to do that. I have been lectured and probably been given material on how to help people, but I have never been shown “hands-on”. No one has ever sided with me, defended me, or stuck up for me in any situations. I strongly feel that if people have been doing that in these situations (instead of encouraging it to progress), I would probably be more inclined to properly intervene and help in the right way.

    What is almost ironic, in my case, is as a child, I used to be forgiving because I was told to be. But the problem is I was never clearly taught what it meant to forgive people. Everyone used to tell me that when a person wrongs you, you forgive them-end of story. Now, I am hearing that forgiving is about letting go and moving on, not necessarily letting the person off the hook. So, when I was in probably high school, I found myself to be less forgiving because of the constant bullying, because it was never clear to me what it really meant to forgive.

    For everyone who has bullied me, I don’t think that I would ever sympathize with them if something were to come up in their lives that was bad or painful. I have moved on, they are not in my life, now. I think that for the sympathy part, I think that I would feel less for someone who bullied me because I think they need to see how it feels to them. I think as far as asking why someone is cruel, they will never be able to give a straight or honest answer because they will probably never grow out of it, and it will just show up in different forms in various stages of their lives.

  8. avatarsuzanne humphreys hogg says

    Dear Mary Rose,
    Thank you for your excellent article. You made only one questionable comment . I have not witnessed the transformation of cruel to kind in people. Some people just do not have the capacity to be kind.

  9. avatarHeather Irvine says

    I found your article very interesting, i am a nurse but i have no formal psychology training. Walking away feels like abandonment to me, I feel responsible, I feel i have an obligation to look after people.
    My children have grown and left home they are happy independant and nurturing adults and i am very proud. I have a very sucessful career and a beautiful home, but I am very unhappy in my relationship. My husband is an only child , he had a very happy childhood, his parents split up when he was 18 that was just before he met me. I have always blamed his issues on their seperation but 25yrs on and I am tired. He comes across as a charasmatic and charming man . Privately he is selfish and cruel.. I have worked very hard my whole life and achieved many qualifications , but i didnt neglect my family, I kept house raised the children and paid the bills, while he drank and overindulged. I treated his drinking as an illness and i think i became his mother in some strange way. But even though he has been sober for 5 years his attitude hasnt changed, He doesnt give me any money towards bills or food he doesnt clean up after himself and has no respect for me. If I moan he says ” is it talking”. He is jealous and resentful. He can be very nice I dont want him to sound like a monster. I want to understand his behaviour.

  10. avatarJen says

    This article shed a great deal of light to me. My husband (currently separated) has met someone and I just couldn’t figure out why he treated me so cruelly yesterday. I gave him what he wanted and allowed the desperation with no problems & have began to move forward with my own life. But I just didnt know exactly why he would treat me so mean after giving him what he wanted. Until I read this article. I have always taken his past & childhood into consideration. He was sentenced to a decade in prison at the age of 17. I have to tell you though, he has been lying to me for years and blaming me. It’s refreshing to know his baggage is his own and now that he is gone, I get to work on recovering from him instead of working trying to fix it.

  11. avatarJennifer says

    look I don’t know what makes people intentionally cruel but I’m glad that I don’t carry this effd up trait!

  12. avatarkel says

    I have been in a situation with a loved one that I am so giving and loving. In return I am told I am not because the way they see it is how I come across. But I disagree I don’t see that it is unloving to visit nearly everyday, pay this persons way on outings, tell them and show them I love them and resolving any issue they have with genuine communication , if I ask to be taken for how I mean things or ask for something emotionally as I see this person isn’t a mind reader I get yelled and screamed at for causing trouble and accused of wanting everything my way.. I never get my way for anything, and I see it as working to grow together. I got accused of lieing for misunderstanding something in the conversation, even though I told them I misunderstood them they still accused me of lieing. If I say my feelings in a nice way I get yelled and screamed at saying all I do is cause problems and its all my fault why they get angry, if I don’t communicate my needs how are they even given a choice to give that to me , they even threaten to hurt themself when I cry when I’m yelled at , I tried to stop them then they said I wouldn’t let u get me to that point to hurt myself , i said good cause I wouldn’t want that I am not like that… I feel so exhausted and I feel this person is quite cruel to me and they can’t see it. It males me doubt my perception as I am always told how to feel and I say that is unfair they then say they didn’t say that.. they tell me if they are that bad a person then leave them alone, I’ve been with this person for two yrs and what was a loving relationship has now turned to this, we did have our ups and downs but it seems to be getting worse.. any advice?

    • avatarj dee says

      Walk away! If it does not feel right. You know, usually immediately too, when you should, instincts and all. There is a world of possibility right outside that f®ont door. Whats that Dr. Suess book? Oh yeah, ….. Oh the Places You’ll Go!

  13. avatarFrances Patrick Gama says

    Hi!, :-), recently in the twin tower jail in Los Angeles, an innocent prisoner, witnessed another inmate killing another inmate. The cruelty of man is so prevalent, an none so worse when you report it, to the Aclu an the tv stations an you hear nothingin return. It’s almost a cruel silent hushing. It’s so sad. I believe that most moms are not paying attention to their children. Some are working to survive an the children are left to, who knows who?, to care for them. I believe,that even a psychotic can learn to do right with a good an smart mother to train him up. Too many children left to the wrong people. Even some moms will be blind to correct the wrong that they see in their children an the wrong that someone is trying to show them. Some parents hav wit tougher than others. To raise these children is a full-time position. Nevertheless it’s the most important position in the world. God help us all

    • avatarC says

      Omg John intentional cruelty is everywhere…especially in children, but often in adults. Were you home-schooled on the planet mars or something?

  14. avatar says

    Hello Mary,

    You have written a thoughtful article, but your way of thinking cuts you off from forgiveness. Here’s the statement that brings this point home to me.

    “I have little sympathy for people who choose to hurt others simply because they are in pain.”

    In saying this, you assume that people actually choose to hurt others. I do not think that this is the case. I don’t believe anyone is intentionally cruel. This is merely your interpretation of human behavior, and one that prevents you from entering a state of forgiveness, or in a larger sense, love. We do what we do because we can’t do otherwise. There is no “you” apart from your genetics and environmental conditioning. Had you been the “intentionally cruel” people you talk about, you would have done exactly as they did. There would have been no superior “you” to bail you out. That “you” doesn’t exist, except in your imagination.

    You are the victim of your lack of sympathy, not the one you are judging. Sympathy for some is not sympathy at all. If you select those who are worthy of your sympathy, then you are merely passing judgment. None of us fallible human beings is in a position to pass judgment on another. If you feel superior to those you are judging to be intentionally cruel, perhaps instead you should simply consider yourself more fortunate.

    • avatarJTK says

      Total nonsense. Trite high-minded sloppy thinking. The facts contradict your opinions.

      You don’t believe anyone is intentionally cruel? Have you ever met a small child? Intentional cruelty is standard procedure for children. Intentional cruelty is something that people deal with and deal out often. You should be able to remember times when you were intentionally cruel. If you won’t admit it then you are a liar.

      Get off your high horse.

      • avatartiggyboy says

        I believe in facts, an that some brains have bad genes, even murderous ones, thats whyy a child has to be monitored continuously an any adverse tendency must be nipped in the bud. Dahmer wasnt watched properly, neither was Richard Ramirez, sorry folks theres no way around not watching a child, even the poor, ither we do this or they are going to, as they say ‘slip threw the’ they didnt slip threw at all, we just missed it an didnt deal with it right there an then.

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