Psychic freezing to lethal malevolent authority

Publication Date06 Jul 2010
AuthorSerbulent Turan,Donald Dutton
subjectMatterHealth & social care,Sociology
Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research • Volume 2 Issue 3 • July 2010 © Pier Professional Ltd4
‘One officer thought of escape during his
first hour of captivity. When he heard some
inmates torture and kill another inmate
in the cell adjacent to where he was being
held, he “gave up” and felt totally hopeless.
The same officer stated that the helplessness
was characterized by thoughts that “you
are going to die and that your life is in
their [the inmates’] hands”.’ Prison Guard
who was taken captive during prison riot
(Hillman, 1981)
Throughout history, war provides examples of
extreme social behaviour rarely seen in civilian
circumstances (eg. Rees, 2007). Psychology
provides a potential explanation for this extreme
behaviour, which usually involves a confluence
of situational and individual factors (Dutton
& Tetreault, 2009). This paper focuses on the
victims’ behaviour, specifically captives in war
situations, either in prisons or massacres (both
current and impending). It notes an unusual
phenomenon whereby captives who face
certain death make no attempt to flee or save
themselves and appear to freeze and comply
with a malevolent authority, even when some
possibility of escape or of overwhelming that
authority exists. We call this phenomenon
‘psychic freezing’, based on a term from
affective neuroscience (Panksepp, 1998), and
argue that it is a response with evolutionary
value that nevertheless may produce lethal
results under certain circumstances.
Why did such a large majority of captives,
both soldiers and civilians, go to their deaths
calmly? Why did they not resist in the face
of certain death, fight back when all hopes
of survival had perished or at least refuse to
co-operate even at the last minute? Why, in the
very last moment of their lives, did they still
obey their victimisers and even assist with the
massacre? The detailed literature on genocide
is markedly weak when it comes to answering
these questions. It is not that resistance never
occurred. A mass escape from the Sobibor
death camp in October 19431 and the Warsaw
Ghetto uprising of April 19442 are but two of
Psychic freezing to lethal
malevolent authority
Serbulent Turan
PhD Student, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, Canada
Donald G Dutton
Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Canada
Several historical examples are given that indicate that people taken prisoner appear to
psychically freeze and/or become compliant to their captors, even when death at the captors’
hands is imminent and when small numbers of captors make escape a real possibility. It is
argued that: freezing is a normative response to apparently inescapable capture; ‘escapability’
of capture is underestimated as a result of freezing; and rebellion is rare. Psychological
theories of this psychic freezing include: 1) social psychological explanations of learned
helplessness in prisoners; 2) trauma reactions of dissociation and numbing; and 3) studies
from affective neuroscience suggesting freezing is a brain response to a perceived inescapable
attack and may be related to hiding.
Massacres; psychic freezing; war violence; malevolent authority.

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