Monday, July 9, 2012

The Psychology of Hatred: Part 1

In general, hatred has been ignored both as an important characteristic of personality and as a contributor to personal identity. Some psychoanalysts (Klein, 1957; Kernberg, 1991; Akhtar, Kramer & Parens, 1995) and a few other theorists (Gilligan, 1996)  are exceptions, but in general I believe it is correct to say that hatred and its associated states such as rage and resentment have been neglected.

The present short report is a modest attempt to remedy this neglect, at least to some degree. First, we will need some definitions and then we will look at some psychological theories about hatred’s origin. Next we will turn to why hatred is so popular especially in relatively normal people (like you and me) and in particular how it contributes to personal identity. We will then take up the Christian understanding of hatred and of identity.

The understanding of hatred developed here raises the basic theological issue of sin and its origin. (This is not to imply that psychological theorists think in terms of concepts like sin.) However, the familiar ease with which human beings develop and then hold on to hatred in response to pain and trauma and even to insult and criticism is an obvious sign of a natural human condition central to so much aggression and harmful conflict, in short our fallen nature.       

Anger and Hatred: The Difference between them
Anger is a natural reaction to almost any actual or perceived attack hurt or threat. Anger is both the immediate emotional and behavioral response to such attacks and it is familiar to all. This kind of anger is so immediate that it is presumably part of how we are made and part of a natural requirement for survival. Therefore, anger is often normal and appropriate, not psychologically harmful. Such quite normal anger, created by actually threatening stimuli, can be called reflexive anger.

Hatred, by contrast, is not an immediate reaction, but commonly, perhaps always, depends upon the cultivation of anger. This cultivation creates supporting cognitive structures, which produce new anger and negative affect long after the original reflexive anger. For example, I might collect all the negatives I could find about a person and weave them into a summary of my enemy’s presumed character. Then various imagined scenarios where I triumph over this “bad” guy or get even might be built up and enjoyed. There are many such possibilities.  Such chronic anger or resentment is really a response to our personally constructed cognitive structures and can be called cultivated anger or hatred. For present purposes, this kind of hatred will be restricted to hatred of another person not hatred of injustice or harmful social structures or of evil. These latter hatreds are, of course, often valid. Instead the focus here is on situations where hatred of the person has eclipsed the actual bad behavior. Thus, as a psychologist I am addressing only interpersonal cultivated anger or hatred.  The scriptural injunction “Be angry but sin not. Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26) is presumably aimed at preventing the development of such cultivated anger and the resulting personal hatred with the serious problems which go with it.

Hatred as Choice
Hatred in childhood can exist primarily as an affect with associated thoughts and not as a willed decision, for example, as a response to severe abuse. Presumably very little true volition is involved in the experiences that set up developmental arrest and pathological conditions in children. An essential point however is that hatred in most adults at its core is not just affect and thoughts but intrinsically involves volition. Of course, the emotional or affective component of hatred plus the associated cognitions remain a major part of adult hatreds, but with maturity the will now becomes a crucial and little acknowledged part of hatred.

The point is that adults either freely decide to accept their previously built up hatred and to continue maintaining it or to work at rejecting it.  In psychotherapy itself, the patient is often explicitly confronted with this kind of choice. He or she must decide to start, or not to start, the process of letting go of hatred. Also, as previously noted, for the adult, the affect is connected with previously built cognitive structures, at least some of which involved acts of the person’s willing acceptance of the constructed scenarios of revenge and resentment. Continued adult hatred, therefore, involves a decision, a refusal to love; and often a refusal to request, accept, or give forgiveness. In the sense that it is willed, hatred for others (and also hatred of self) is never healthy. It is natural in the sense of being common but it never produces psychological health.

Obviously, the patient does not have the freedom to stop hating in the sense of easily abandoning hate filled structures built up over many years. But, as stated, patients do have the freedom to begin to stop hating, although the process is hard and requires sustained effort. One of the major helps provided by a psychotherapist or by a spiritual advisor is to focus people on their need to let go of hatreds and to maintain that focus over time, since it is common that the choice to let go of hatred and often to forgive has to be made many times and with respect to different memories and interpretations of the “enemy”. (This emphasis on the patient’s will can be interpreted as an example of Meissner’s (1993) “self as agent.” Meissner, a well known psychoanalyst interprets the self as a super-ordinate structural construct representing the whole person and containing the willing or responsible self as agent, as actor.)

As noted, it is an assumption here that hatred of a person, not of a behavior or injustice, is at bottom harmful to mental well being. From a psychological perspective hatred can viewed as a type of defense mechanism—which is not to imply that all defense mechanisms are inherently pathological. Some (e.g., sublimation) are healthy when employed properly. The development of a person’s basic ego strength and an adequate measure of self worth often require defensive or protective psychological responsesas the body wards off threats to its integrity. This is especially true in childhood when many defenses are set up because few other options are available or known to the child. However, in a subsequent article, we will focus on the reasons why adults seem to like hating other people.

Akhtar, S., Kramer, S., & Parens, H. (1995). The birth of hatred: Developmental, clinical, and technical aspects of intense aggression. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Gilligan, J. (1996). Violence: Our deadly epidemic and its causes. New York, NY: Putnam.
Kernberg, O. (1991). The psychopathology of hatred. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39, 209-238.
Klein, M. (1957). Envy and gratitude. New York, NY: Basic Books
Meissner, W.W. (1993). Self as agent in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 16, 459-495.

Paul C. Vitz
The Institute for the Psychological Sciences

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