Reflections on The Psychology of Evil: The Holocaust

The psychology of evil is considered from an evolutionary point of view: participation in evil is the unwanted, but inevitable result of the interaction between adaptive processes whose primary purpose is to optimize information processing, alleviate suffering, facilitate group inclusion and help us cope with the awareness of our own mortality. The roles that obedience to authority and coping with extreme life situations, as illustrated by the works of Stanley Milgram and Robert Jay Lifton, play in the dynamic of participation in evil, are emphasized. Specific references are made to the Holocaust, considered a prototypical example of evil.

Is evil a legitimate subject of study for psychology?

A discussion of the psychology of evil implies a moral point of view – a difficult position for a psychologist. Indeed, the trust of psychological research seems to be the search for the causes and the dynamic of behavior, for understanding rather than judgment.
This creates a moral dilemma: does trying to explain and understand an evil process – such as the Holocaust – implicitly reduce its horror? Making it the object of scientific inquiry requires impartiality – and, in this context, the mere pretense of it is a moral monstrosity. It is possible, as George Steiner (1987) has suggested, that “there is no human form of language adequate to the conceptualization and understanding of Auschwitz”, but accepting that would leave, in our self definition as a species, a place where dragons lurk forever.
On the other hand it is possible, as Lifton has proposed, that we can begin to interrupt the process first by naming it?
I believe such an approach is possible because psychology can integrate a moral and a scientific standpoint, allowing one to understand without having to forgive and demythifying evil without the risk of making it more palatable.


Formulating a hypothesis in this context is a risky (not to mention grandiose) undertaking; some narrowing of its scope seems in order.
I will not address the economical, historical and political context that facilitates the occurrence of evil and, tempting as it may be, I will try to avoid a psychopathological explanation.
While pathology undoubtedly plays an important role, especially in the case of the leaders, it is the participation of the “common man” that interests me – and that stands at the core of any attempt at an explanation.
The cooperation of the common man made possible the genocide of Armenians, the Holocaust, the various Gulags, the killing fields of Cambodia as well as other events of smaller magnitude such as Katyn forest, My Lai, Damur, Sabra and Shatila, Hama – and gave them their true dimension.
Throughout this discussion the Holocaust will be used as an example, but what is sought, in fact, is a commonality – a specific configuration of factors that permit the emergence of evil.
I believe that the extent of co-participation is caused by the interaction of several totally unrelated interpersonal, intrapersonal, and social phenomena originally developed to foster socialization, avoid anxiety and pain, and insure an optimal processing of information.
These phenomena are enumerated below, ordered by the level of societal complexity at which they occur:


The acceptance of symbolic reality

The denial of death and quest for symbolic immortality

The universality of stereotyping
and obedience to authority

Psychological mechanisms for
stress reduction



human species






facilitate socialization

cope with awareness of mortality

increase group cohesiveness and facilitate of others’ reaction

help cope with limit situations

help cope with guilt and internal consistency

The acceptance of symbolic reality

We live, in Lifton’s words, “on images”. The mental images dominate our inner world and prepare and motivate our actions. We are a symbol-making species – a process described by Langer (1948) as a primary activity “essential to thought and prior to it”. By acting on symbols and images, “man... in a very concrete sense creates his universe” (Bertalanffy, 1968). This process is made possible by the human tendency to accept symbolic reality as the equivalent of reality “proper”.
It is impossible to trace this universal trait back to its beginnings; I will create an arbitrary starting point by postulating, in a jocular manner, the existence of the “first liar”.
The first lie was a momentous discovery. While the liar knows two universes – the “real” one and the “false” one – the believer accepts the “false” one as the only one, inherently “true”. In fact an alternate universe is created, identical in all its aspects to the original one, except for the facts lied about.
Once this step was taken, there was no returning. Mankind gleefully engaged on a path leading to culture, innovation, hypothetical thinking, abstract reasoning, art – and evil.
By Plato’s time, as illustrated in his allegory of the cave, it was argued that the universe of ideas (i.e. the symbolic universe) was the “real” one, while the universe of objects was seen only as a poor reflection of it, mere shadows distorted by the limitations of our senses.
By positing a universal need to find and integrate meaning Berger and Luckmann (1966) argue that reality is a social construct, fulfilling the functions of: sheltering the individual from the “ultimate terror” of aloneness; ordering history; and conferring meaning.
They trace the emergence of socially constructed reality through several steps.
First, the constancies of everyday life within the shared reality are bridged together by language, which has the capacity to “transcend the here and now” of immediate experience.
Second, institutionalized actions are bridged by roles. The roles are “mediators of specific sectors of the common stock of knowledge” and, by reification, lead to “the identification of the individual with his socially assigned typification”. For instance, the identification of “Jew” may be equally reifying for the anti-Semite and the Jew himself, except that the latter will accept the identification positively and the former negatively... Such reifications may range from the pre¬theoretical level of “what everybody knows about Jews” to the most complex theories of Jewishness as a manifestation of biology (“Jewish blood”), psychology (“The Jewish soul”) and metaphysics (“The Mystery of Israel”) (p. 91).
Finally the different spheres of reality – the subuniverses – are integrated by incorporation in the same overarching universe of meaning – the symbolic universe –“which constitutes the universe in the literal sense of the word because all human experience can now be conceived as taking place within it. The symbolic universe is conceived as the matrix of all socially objectivated and subjectively real meanings; the entire historic society and the entire biography of the individual are seen as taking place within this universe” (p. 96).
These symbolic universes are sustained by universe maintenance mechanisms, which ensure their internal consistency and continuity, and act as a safeguard against dissonance. Mythology, theology, philosophy and science are all universe maintenance mechanisms.
Deviants – those whose definitions of reality do not fit the symbolic universe – are dealt with by either therapy or nihilation using conceptual machinery to “keep everyone within the universe in question” or “liquidate conceptually everything outside the same universe”.
Nihilation is most often used with individuals or groups which do not belong to the society in question and assigns them an “inferior ontological status”. This leads to a chilling and all too familiar conclusion: “whether one then proceeds from nihilation to therapy or rather goes on to liquidate physically what one has liquidated conceptually is a practical question of policy” (p. 97).
Once the first decisive step is taken – Jews are declared as not belonging to society – nihilation manifests itself at all the levels of universe maintenance mechanisms.
A look at Nazi legislation illustrates the systematic exclusion of Jews from society (unless differently attributed, all examples are taken from Hilberg, 1961): prohibition of intermarriage (Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor 9-15-1935), barring from public office (4-7-1933), permitting the voiding of wills that offend “the sound judgment of the people” (7-31-1938), destruction of synagogues (11-11-1938), mandatory wearing of the yellow star (9-1-1941), prohibition of friendly relations with Jews (11-24-1941), proposal that Jews not be permitted to institute civil suits (9-9-1942) – and the corresponding reaction at different levels of universe maintenance mechanisms: mythology (worldwide Jewish conspiracy), theology (representations of the Jew as demonic, the Jew as Christ killer), philosophy and science (attacks on the theory of relativity as “Jewish physics”), biological (theories of racial superiority).
Those excluded challenge the symbolic universe and are seen as threatening the very meaning of society and the order of history and, if mere physical existence is deemed a threat, the most radical measures can be seen as justified. It matters little that the threat is illusory as this is symbolic reality, verified and sustained by social consensus.
At the same time, the symbolic universe is in a dialectical relationship with its maintenance mechanisms, being at the same time preserved and shaped by them, leading to an increasing congruence between social order and the repressive measures that maintain it and making nonconformity more and more difficult.
In order to sustain such a social consensus, a new level of symbolic manipulation is needed – one that appeals more directly to emotions.

Death denial and symbolic immortality

Ernest Becker (1976) argues that culture has evolved from humankind’s attempts to master its awareness of mortality and that the main function of culture is death denial.
Lifton follows a similar line of reasoning, but emphasizes the role of culture in fostering a sense of “oneness” and continuity, creating a context in which one can “both die and continue” (1983). Bronowski (1974) also noted that the identification of the individual with symbols of his culture helps to establish “a sense of permanence characteristically human, that life forms a continuity which transcends and flows through the individual” (pp.116–l17).
While mankind became more and more immersed in symbolic reality (from “the first liar” to Plato), the forms of death denial also changed: continuity with nature was substituted by continuity with culture and survival was replaced with symbolic immortality.
Becker argues against Rousseau’s notion that all men are created equal, by quoting Brown (1959), that unavoidable inequality is a basic human condition: “If the emergence of social privilege marks ‘the Fall of man’, the Fall took place not in the transition from ‘primitive communism’ to ‘private property’ but in the transition from ape to man” (p. 215).
That is, Becker adds, “from a type of animal that had no notion of the sacred to one that did” (p. 50) – in other words, to one that creates and accepts symbolic reality.
Power, wealth, prestige are accumulated and become “immortality symbols” conferring symbolic immortality to their owner whom Becker calls “the hero”. Since not everybody can attain this status, the common man subordinates himself to a culturally designated “hero”.
But what’s in it for him? Or, as Brown puts it: why are the chains that bind men self imposed?
The answer, Becker believes, lies in transference, a phenomenon that “goes right to the heart” of the human condition: “People take the overwhelmingness of creation and their own fears and desires and project them... onto certain figures to which they then refer” (p. 50).
This is unavoidable and contains a fundamental flaw: it leads men to “fashion up freedom as a bribe for self perpetuation” and to subordinate themselves to the hero in order to share in his quest for symbolic immortality. As Rank paradoxically put it, humans have come to preserve their immortality rather than their lives.
Society, in Becker’s view, is a “hero system that promises victory over evil and death” and all cultures are “fundamentally and basically styles of heroic death denial”.
In other words, death denial and the promise of symbolic immortality become intrinsic parts of the symbolic universe which confers society its meaning. In fact, it could be argued that the promise of symbolic immortality is a universe maintenance mechanism, an emotionally loaded one.
Its power is further increased by concentration in highly symbolic images specific to each culture, termed by Lifton “controlling images”. The thousands of Iranian youth rushing mine fields with a “key to the heavens” sown to their garments provide an illustration of the motivating power of such images.
Culture performs a sleight of hand by substituting symbolic immortality for survival and man is ready to die for ideas. For, as Koestler (1970) remarks, wars are fought over words: “man’s urge to self transcendence, his devotion to a cause has made more butchery than private aggressiveness in history”. This leads Becker to a paradoxical and tragic conclusion: evil comes from man’s urge to heroic victory over evil.
Imagery related to symbolic immortality was part of Nazi ideology. From participation in a “thousand years Reich” to the depiction of the extermination of Jews as mortal combat (“we had a moral right vis-a-vis our people to annihilate this people which wanted to annihilate us” – Himmler), from the promotion of “ritual murder” (blood libel) to historic fact to the depiction of Jews as ready to “poison the blood”, “backstab”, “a pseudo-people welded together by hereditary criminality” (Stress) whose history was “murder; everywhere mass murder” (Streicher), the underlying message, be it but reaction simplistic or elaborate, is the same: they (the Jews) threaten our (the Germans) symbolic immortality.
As Etvos Karoly, the defense attorney of the Jews in the last blood libel trial in Europe in Tiszaujvar, Hungary, in 1882 wrote, the Jews present a paradox because they have managed to adjust to any situation while remaining always the same and, generally, wield an influence disproportionate with their number.
They may be seen as having symbolic immortality and this makes them a likely target. But that still does not explain why an identifiable group can be portrayed so successfully as the focus of evil in a particular society. I will try to avoid a discussion of anti-Semitism, and focus instead on the more general process underlying it: stereotyping.


A stereotype is at the same time an “image in the head”, a judgment, an expectation, a set of beliefs about the characteristics of an identifiable group, shared by some out-group (and even some in-group) members.
While cross-cultural data are scarce, stereotypes seem to exist in almost all cultures and share a commonality of attributes such as rigidity, pervasiveness, oversimplification and resistance to change.
What makes stereotypes so ubiquitous and impervious to cognitive dissonance?
I believe that adaptive requirements such as the need to categorize and recall information with efficiency, the management of one’s social relations network, and the need to anticipate the reactions of others place specific restraints on how others are perceived, leading to the unavoidable formation of stereotypes.
Stereotyping implies categorization. Studying the emergence of categories, Rosch (1973) found that certain basic shapes and focal colors are considered as the more typical representative of their category and learned easier. She named them “natural categories” or prototypes.
In subsequent studies she found that common object taxonomies follow the same pattern: moderately inclusive, not very abstract categories – named basic categories – (such as “lamp”, “table”, or “chair”) permit the identification of a typical category member much easier than if a supraordinate category (“furniture”) is used, while minimizing the need for fine discriminations required by the use of subordinate categories (“dining room table” or “desk lamp”). The basic category also conveys considerable information by the use of a simple label.
I believe that stereotypes have the same properties as the basic categories or prototypes and that their social value lies in the easy categorization of others, making their reactions easier to predict. We tend to place ourselves in the subordinate category requiring fine discrimination, while placing others in the basic category which permits easy generalization and labeling (McGuire et al. 1979).
Wallace (1970) argues that the relationship between our actions and those of others form cognitive maps, permitting the prediction of their behavior irrespective of their motivations and which constitute an implicit contract. From this perspective the stereotype represents a veritable trove of information and the only steps needed to gain access to it are the acceptance of the stereotype and the decision of whether one is a typical representative of it. Since the boundaries of stereotypes are not clearly defined this decision is probabilistic in nature.
Asch (1946) found that person perceptions are formed around central traits “which determine the content and functional place of the peripheral traits within the entire impression” (p. 268).
In a stereotype these central traits are a “given”, meaning that its very existence skews the perception of others. Tajfel and Wilkes (1963) and Taylor and Fiske (1978) have found that the presence of existing categories will polarize the incoming information, maximizing the differences between groups and minimizing the differences within group; Cohen (1977), and Cantor and Mischel (1977) found that the presence of a stereotype leads to a clear memory bias consistent with it. The stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, impervious to cognitive dissonance; facts that do not fit are dismissed on the grounds that the individuals involved are not “typical” representatives of the category – leading to the well known “some of my best friends are Jews” defense: “80,000,000 good Germans and each of them has his decent Jew” (Himmler).
Such stereotypes are “sanctions for evil” because they dehumanize potential victims, weakening the moral restraints against violence.
There is a clear correlation between dehumanization and disinhibition of aggression: Bandura (1975) found that dehumanized subjects are treated more punitively and Zimbardo (1973) stated that deindividuation of both victim and victimizer facilitates aggression. This is also consistent with Bettelheim’s (1943) observations on behavior in concentration camps, Cohn’s (1967) and Dawidowitz’s (1973) analysis of the effect of anti-Semitic stereotyping before and during the Holocaust, Lifton’s (1971) analysis of the My Lai massacre and Kelman’s (1973) theory of “sanctioned massacres”.
It seems to me that when the belief in a group’s superiority becomes a controlling image the effect can best be described as toxic: it undermines moral judgment and widens the field of “acceptable” acts that can be inflicted on “inferior beings”.
The moral restraints on the use of violence, already, weakened by negative stereotyping, are further undermined by two new dynamic factors: group pressure and obedience to authority.
Asch’s (1951) classic study provided a startling example of the effects of perceived pressure to conform to even an ad-hoc group. Following the same line of reasoning in a more socially meaningful context, Milgram (1969) arrived at an even more shocking conclusion: in order to conform and obey authority, a significant number of “normal” people are ready to hurt their peers.
Their moral scruples are, according to Milgram (1969), overridden by the demands of authority because of the “agentic state”. The agentic state is the opposite of autonomy and occurs when “a self regulating entity is internally modified so as to allow its functioning within a system of hierarchical control. From a subjective standpoint, a person is in a state of agency when he defines himself in a social situation in a manner that renders him open to regulation by a person of higher status. In this condition the individual no longer views himself as responsible for his actions, but defines himself as an instrument for carrying out the wishes of others” (p. 134).
The keys to understanding the agentic state are the person’s acceptance of the definition of the situation by those in authority and the person’s self definition within this situation.
As Milgram points out, the above processes contain an element of free will. This is a common thread running through the discussion: the acceptance of a symbolic universe, the joining in a quest for symbolic immortality, the belief in a certain controlling image and stereotype, submitting to agentic state are, as Milgram puts it, “only states of mind”. There is a considerable amount of “as if” behavior involved; nonconformity, albeit subjectively difficult, is always possible and personal responsibility is never eschewed.

Psychological mechanisms for stress reduction

By focusing on the moral dilemma implicit in the agentic state, Milgram’s analysis moves the discussion to a new, personal level.
How does a victimizer cope with stress and guilt?
After all, no rationalization or agentic state insulate against the awareness of what is being committed. Two psychological mechanisms described by Lifton (1983, 1983a, 1986) provide the conceptual framework for an answer: “psychic numbing” and “doubling”.
Psychic numbing has been observed primarily in the victims (Hiroshima and Holocaust survivors). In its extreme form it has been described as “death in life” or a “devil’s bargain”: “an inner agreement to restrain vitality in return for the dubious right to live at all” (1983, p. 112). But, in an obscene congruence, the victimizers also benefit from it.
Psychic numbing is, in fact, “a process of desymbolization and deformation: ... (the) incapacity to confront certain kinds of experience due to blocking or absence of inner form of imagery that can connect with such an experience” (1983a, p. 27).
The terms of the Faustian bargain are different for the victimizer: by accepting a controlling image – the Trojan horse of a symbolic universe, for example equating the extermination of Jews with “The Battle of Destiny for the German Nation” – one gets relief from guilt and pain, and, to use Hilberg’s words, “descends into savagery”.
By the use of psychic numbing, the physical experience of the concentration camp can be muted, made more “acceptable” and given an exculpatory – or even laudatory – context: “Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses lie there, or when 500 corpses lie there, or when 1000 corpses lie there. To have gone through this and – apart from a few exceptions caused by human weakness – to have remained decent, that has made us great. That is a page of glory in our history which has never been written…” (Himmler).
This illusion of “having remained decent” was made possible by the use of “doubling”. The psychological principle of doubling is, according to Lifton “the division of the self in two functioning wholes. In that way, a part-self becomes, in effect, an entire self” (1986). By doubling one could “not only kill and contribute to killing, but organize silently, on behalf of that evil project, an entire self structure (or self process) encompassing virtually all aspects of his behavior” (1986).
Doubling differs from splitting or dissociation because there is continuity between what Lifton calls “the Auschwitz self” and the prior self, and the two selves are syntonic: “the Auschwitz self had to be both autonomous and connected to the prior self that gave rise to it” (1986).
The controlling image that facilitated this continuity in perhaps the most extreme case – the Nazi doctors – was described by Lifton as “killing in the name of healing” – a rationalization helped by simplistic imagery, equating the very existence of the Jews with a threat to the “Survival of the Nation” (Jews = disease = death) which permeated Nazi ideology.
For example, Frank, the General Governor of occupied Poland, described Jews as “lice” and said that the “remova1 of the Jewish element” had undoubtedly contributed to “better health” in Europe. Similarly, Schmidt, the Foreign Office chief, declared “the Jewish question is not a question of humanity and it is not a question of religion; it is solely a question of political hygiene” and pogroms have been described as “self cleaning actions” or “cleansing-of-the-Jews action”.
While doubling does not eliminate conscience, it “transfers” it: “the requirements of conscience were transferred to the Auschwitz self which placed it within its own criteria for good... thereby freeing the original self from responsibility for actions there” (Lifton, 1986). Although this process is very similar to the agentic state, it represents a further step: the demands of authority have been internalized and given autonomy within the self.
However, as Lifton emphasizes, “one is always responsible for Faustian bargains” and, in the context of the Holocaust, “doubling was likely to mean a choice for evil”.


But was there another choice? Freedom of choice has already been emphasized: it is present in the acceptance of a particular symbolic universe and a certain way of seeking symbolic immortality, in belief in specific stereotypes and in degrees of obedience to authority, as well as in the choices underlying psychic numbing and doubling described above.
In order to have become a co-participant in the Holocaust one had to make decisions; while one is not always aware of motives, the decision itself is a conscious act – no one became “unconsciously” a member of the SS.
I believe that the “choice for evil” is achieved by self deception: one has only to feel convinced that, in fact, there is “no choice” and the moral dilemma disappears.
But is this a conscious act? Is there an awareness of the self deception?
Paul Ricoeur has proposed the concept of the “intimate core of personality”: while there are successive layers of truth, half truth and falsehoods, at the level of the intimate core self deception is impossible. It is not a moral arbiter, but merely an incorruptible witness.
The multiple layers of truth and lies permit the forging of coherent versions of reality and of versions of the past – or life stories – consistent with them, at different levels of self deception corresponding to different levels of justification.
There is, of course, a price to be paid: the very act of deceiving oneself undermines autonomy and pride. It is in this sense that Sartre (1962) wrote that anti-Semitism is basically an act of self definition.
This is a pervasive and subtle process which facilitates and underlies psychic numbing and doubling. By using it one achieves a degree of internal consistency which enhances the feeling of continuity with culture.
For example, an SS camp guard could create for himself a life story detailing how he had no choice but to carry out orders and how, in his heart, he always disagreed and suffered for it and another one, emphasizing his Nazi past, the risks he took for “the cause” and the sacrifices he had to make to carry out the same orders heroically. While aware, in the intimate core, that neither version is entirely true, he may switch from one to another, depending on the situation, and still feel sincere.
Orwell named this phenomenon (in a more drastic form) doublethink – a vast system of mental cheating that flourishes in totalitarian society.
It is interesting to note how Nazi society facilitated self deception. As Arendt, and also Hilberg note, there were rigid rules governing official correspondence about the Holocaust: “final solution”, “evacuation” and “special treatment” instead of “killing”, “change of residence” and “resettlement” instead of “deportation” and so on.
In Arendt’s (1959) words, self deception has become “almost a moral prerequisite for survival” providing an effective – and culturally shared – shielding from reality: “Eichmann needed only to recall the past in order to feel assured that he was not lying and he was not deceiving himself for he and the world he lived in had once been in harmony and that a society of 80 million people has shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self deception” (p. 52).


From the acceptance of symbolic reality – which is a basic human condition – to the creation of symbolic universes – a necessary condition for the emergence of society and culture from the quest for symbolic immortality – a basic function of culture – to stereotyping – a consequence of the adaptive value of predicting the behavior of others and of group cohesiveness, to the agentic state and to psychic numbing, doubling and self deception – all ways of coping with stress, guilt and pain – I have tried to sketch the theory of a psychology of evil.
Without dependence on a particular historical condition (the examples were chosen as an illustration) or on psychopathology, this theory tries to provide an explanation of the “common man’s” participation in evil: the readiness to accept symbolic reality facilitates the emergence of symbolic universes and replaces survival with the search for symbolic immortality.
In order to share symbolic immortality, humans accept others’ definition of reality and, by implication, tend to become subservient to authority, to accept and share the stereotypes that facilitate the use of violence. Psychic numbing and doubling insulate them against the consequences and, by using self-deception, can create life stories consistent with the sense of meaning and history of the symbolic universe they subscribe to. Free choice is present at every step of the way and individual responsibility is never eschewed.
This demonstration is neither rigorous nor comprehensive, but rather the outline of a possibility.
Since the hypothesis was that the interaction of socio psychological phenomena with adaptive value is the cause of participation in evil, the conclusion is necessarily a pessimistic one: unless the awareness of the potentiality of the Holocaust becomes part of our symbolic universe and the moral repugnance of it becomes a universe maintenance mechanism it can happen again. This is a compelling argument to try to understand what happened and never forget.
There were, after all, as George Steiner recently wrote (1987a); “wolves in the streets of cities in the center of Europe at the close of the Thirty Year’s war. If man is a rabid creature, he is also a tenacious one. There are living Jews, and Hiroshima is a booming city”.

* This paper was written as a chapter in the author’s PhD work in 1985.


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