President's Column

The No. 1 problem facing the world today may be hate. Although psychologists have had quite a bit to say about love, they have had much less to say about hate. And yet, arguably, the terrorism, massacres and genocides the world has faced, seemingly throughout human history, may have part of their origins in the development and even cultivation of hate.

I do not use the word "cultivation" lightly. There are many thousands of schools and probably millions of families where children are being taught to hate--to believe that people who somehow are supposedly "not like them" are worthy only of eradication. How could terrorists mercilessly murder the victims of the plane crashes of Sept. 11, 2001? How could terrorists or soldiers anywhere, anytime, wantonly commit mass murder? After World War II, many in the world said, "Never again." They were wrong. Massacres and genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi and many other places showed just how wrong.

What is hate, anyway? One conception is that posed by my "duplex theory" of hate (Sternberg, in press), according to which hate has two basic components. The first component is structural and involves negation of intimacy, passion and commitment.

In negation of intimacy, an individual sees another individual or group as somehow less than human. One cannot possibly feel care or compassion for such targets because they are not really people: They are more like bacteria, vermin or scum, to use just three of the metaphors the Nazis and others applied to their targets. Through passion, the individual becomes aroused toward fight or flight--either to strike at the hated target or to run away from it. So it is not enough just to view the target as nonhuman; one must do something about it. Commitment provides a belief system that supports the feelings of hate.

Children are taught stories about the target group that allegedly justify the feelings of hate toward that group--and it is these stories that constitute the second component of the duplex theory. In the duplex theory, the stories are drawn from the work of Keen (1986) and others who have analyzed the kinds of propaganda used to foment hate. Such stories include targets as enemies of God, vermin, rapists, savages, power-crazed and greedy people, and so forth. My analysis of hate-provoking propaganda throughout the ages suggests that the propaganda leads people to internalize stories about their targets, which in turn promote negation of intimacy, passion and commitment. The Nazis, of course, were master propagandists. But all of the major genocides started with similar kinds of propaganda, and the heads of today's terrorist groups are being filled with such vicious material.

When we speak of hate, it is easy to think we are speaking of a problem that other people have. The truth, however, is that we all need to be on guard. Ugly incidents against members of all religions are occurring around the world at this very time. Some of these incidents have been in the United States. We need to remember that people often experience hate not as hate, but as self-righteous feelings of anger or aversion. Moreover, there are different kinds of hate (Sternberg, in press). For example, cold hate occurs in the presence of the commitment component alone, whereas burning hate occurs in the presence of all three elements. The more elements of hate that are present, the greater the threat of hate-based action.

Working with members of APA's Div. 48 (Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence) and Public Interest Directorate, I have formed a task force to explore the nature of hate and how we can combat hate and terrorism to achieve lasting peace. As part of my efforts, I also am editing a book on the psychology of hate, to be published by APA. Our goals are to have an impact on science and on the world.

I believe that the best ways to combat hate are to understand it, to recognize it in oneself and to reject it. Moreover, I believe that wisdom ultimately may be the best cure. Wise people do not hate because they understand things from other people's points of view, including those of people with whom they may have strong disagreements. Teaching people to think wisely, therefore, may be the best way to teach them to reject hate.

Further Reading

  • Keen, S. (1986). Faces of the enemy: Reflections of the hostile imagination. New York: Harper & Row.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (in press). A duplex theory of hate and its development and its application to terrorism, massacres, and genocide. Review of General Psychology.