Very kindly, Arianna Huffington and her associates at Thrive Global invited me to post an interview I have recently done. Their aims, to help people thrive, very much correspond to may aims, to help people become more caring, helpful, morally courageous, and active bystanders who respond positively to the need for help and other events—to promote goodness—and to help prevent violence, especially violence by groups against other groups such as mass killing, genocide and terrorism—to prevent evil—and help groups reconcile to improve people’s lives and prevent new violence. I have done research on these topics and applied what I have learned in a variety of real life settings. 

I was interviewed recently by Salzburg Global Seminar, a wonderful organization that has been conducting seminars/meetings for over 25 years, many about issues that relate to my work. The meetings take place in a former castle in a beautiful environment in Salzburg, Austria. I was part of one of them. The form of the interview was that they sent me 13 written questions, interesting and challenging ones, and I answered in writing. They posted these answers on their website, sent out the interview to their Fellows, and also are doing other things with it.

Salzburg Global: You’ve spent the majority of your professional life studying the roots of goodness and the roots of evil and applying the knowledge you gained to real-world situations. If you had to distill this research, which I recognize isn’t easy, what are some of your main takeaways you want to impart to others?

Ervin Staub: With regard to the roots of evil, my first main takeaway is that seeing members of another group (or a single person) as separate and different from us, as “them” rather than “us,” and seeing them in a negative light, or using my term, devaluing them, opens the door to harming them. There are varied forms of devaluation, and some are more dangerous than others. Seeing the other as immoral, or as less than human (in Rwanda, Tutsi were called cockroaches by Hutus), and as intent on harming oneself or one’s group, are especially dangerous. Also, devaluing a group that does relatively well in the society—the Jews in Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Armenians in Turkey—is especially dangerous for that group.

A second crucial takeaway is that hostility and violence evolve progressively. Individuals and whole groups change when they harm others. If there are no restraining forces to stop them, they justify the harm they have done. They devalue their victims more, and usually also create a vision of a better life for themselves, which is destructive as they claim that the targeted group stands in the way of fulfilling the vision. The vision can be seemingly positive, like the Khmer Rouge ideology in Cambodia of social equality. But the Khmer Rouge believed that some groups would resist a society of social equality and had to be eliminated.

A third takeaway is that the passivity of witnesses or bystanders, people who are neither victims nor perpetrators, allows this evolution to progress. These can be internal bystanders, within a country, or external bystanders, individuals, groups, nations outside the country. Their passivity says to harm doers that others see what they are doing as acceptable, or even support it. Complicity by bystanders is even worse. There are many forms of this; one was U.S. corporations doing business in Germany after the Nazis killed communists, socialists, leaders of trade unions, and were increasingly persecuting Jews. In the course of the evolution of harm doing, to avoid empathic suffering, passive bystanders, especially internal bystanders, tend to distance themselves from victims, reducing the likelihood of action by them.

In addition to material needs, human beings have basic psychological needs—for security, for a positive identity, for positive connections to certain individuals and groups, for the ability to control important events in life, for understanding the world and our place in it. When conditions in the world frustrate these needs, we turn to ideals, visions, groups, that can help us satisfy them to some degree. These ideals and groups can be destructive—like the Nazis, and their ideals of racial purity, the leadership principles—that is, complete obedience to the leader, Hitler, and expanding German living space (by taking territory from others).

Finally, related to healing from either having experienced, or having perpetrated violence, and to moving after violence toward positive behavior, understanding the roots of violence has great value. Helping people with such understanding was one of our major tools in Rwanda, in Amsterdam, and elsewhere. Even with police, part of the training is discussion of why officers may engage in unnecessary harmful action toward citizens. With regard to genocide or other mass violence, the influences include difficult life conditions or a history of conflict between groups or both, their psychological impact—devaluation of the other, scapegoating, creating destructive ideologies—and limited harmful actions such as discrimination and some degree of violence which start an evolution.   

An important takeaway about the roots of goodness is that seeing human beings in general, and particular groups of people or individuals in a positive light, makes it more likely that we will act on their behalf. To see people that way is usually the result of having received love and affection and positive guidance with caring values early in life. But positive views of people, caring values, and helping can also develop later, in ways that I refer to in other responses.

Goodness can also develop as the result of a reasonably benevolent society that helps people satisfy their basic material needs, and also satisfy basic psychological needs constructively rather than destructively. For example, through connection and cooperation rather than power and dominance over others. Also, like hostility and violence, caring, helping, and active bystandership can progressively evolve. Small caring acts by individuals, groups, or a whole society can bring change in a positive direction and lead to greater acts. Both socialization, involving children in discussing rules and making decisions, and such an evolution can contribute to the development of moral courage, acting on moral and caring values in spite of potential or actual opposition or negative consequences.  

People (and whole groups) who have been significantly harmed can become hostile, aggressive, or withdrawn from others. But I have found that suffering in childhood or as adults can also be a source of caring and helping, or “altruism born of suffering.” There are many examples of this. Studying this phenomenon, people becoming altruists after suffering, we came to believe that corrective experiences, such as care and support by others and healing, make this likely to happen.  

SG: You have worked with teachers to create classrooms that promote caring and helping. You have trained police to prevent or stop unnecessary harmful actions by fellow officers. You have promoted reconciliation in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo. You have worked to improve Dutch-Muslim relations in Amsterdam after violence there. When considering all these interventions, where do you feel you made the most impact?

ES: I hope and believe that all had a positive impact. In Rwanda, after eight years of workshops with varied groups, including national leaders, in 2004, we began to broadcast educational radio programs that are still ongoing. The aim of both the workshops and radio programs was to promote healing and reconciliation after the genocide of 1994 in Rwanda and prevent future violence between Hutus and Tutsis. We also had such programs in the Eastern Congo, and in Burundi, where they also still continue. Evaluation studies showed a variety of positive effects, such as greater willingness to work with the other group for shared goals, greater empathy, people saying what they believed—in a country where they are very careful about what they publicly say— and others.

In Amsterdam, the city government invited me to develop proposals to improve ethnic Dutch-Muslim relations after substantial violence in this normally peaceful city and acted on a number of them. The head of staff of the city manager described in an article nine practices they created or developed. These included new institutions to bring people together and to inform the groups about each other; after Ramadan Muslim families inviting Dutch families for dinner; a way to enhance public-political participation by young Muslims, and more. Finally, I worked with teachers to create classrooms that promote caring and helping in children. To mention just one aspect of this, one goal was to provide all the children with significant roles in the classroom; another to guide them to learn by “doing.” The impact of such classrooms can be substantial, but I did not have the opportunity to observe or evaluate its impact.

But I think we are in the process of making the most impact with the training I have developed for police. I originally developed that training for police in California in 1992, after the Rodney King incident. In that incident, after a car chase the police pulled Rodney King out of his car, several officers beat him with their batons while he was lying on the ground, and a number of officers stood around watching this. Someone from a nearby balcony filmed this, sent it to a television station, and it went viral. The aim of the training was to get police officers to be active bystanders, who act to prevent or stop unnecessary harmful actions by fellow officers.

The training gained real traction in the last five years or so in New Orleans. Police officers in that city had frequently unnecessarily harmed and at times killed citizens. The Justice Department got involved and signed a consent decree with the city and the police department, which required reform. Under the influence of a civil rights attorney there, Mary Howell, who knew me and my work and who was passionate about reforming the police, the person who wrote the consent decree in the Department of Justice included this training in the decree.

Several consultants, the monitor of the consent decree Jonathan Aronie, and members of the police department under the leadership of a new police superintendent, Michael Harrison, participated in creating a version of the training for New Orleans. The name of the training is EPIC: Ethical Policing is Courageous. The original training aimed to protect citizens from unnecessary harm and improve police-community relations. A main difference in New Orleans is not in the training itself, but emphasizing the benefits to the police. Officers won’t be prosecuted for criminal conduct, or lose their jobs, and neither will be officers who are witnesses and do nothing. Ethical officers won’t be distressed having to witness the unethical behavior of others.

The training requires a culture change. The meaning of good teamwork has to be redefined, from its usual meaning among police officers that you support anything your fellow officer does, to protecting everyone by stopping a fellow officer from unnecessarily harming people. This requires the involvement and support of high-level officers. The training includes learning about what inhibits active bystandership, skills of non-aggressive interventions, how to get other bystanding officers to be allies in intervention, and other elements.

We have a lot of indicators of the effectiveness of the training. Complaints about the police have almost disappeared. There are a good number of anecdotal reports of active bystandership: an officer putting an arm around another officer who got activated and seemed about to attack a demonstrator. An officer standing in front of a woman officer whom a citizen verbally abuses and who is getting more and more angry, saying to her “EPIC, EPIC.” The woman officer repeats it and moves back. In a community meeting, a man says that he has mental health issues and the police used to harass him, and now they come over, ask how he is doing. Their kindness even confuses him.
This training has received a lot of attention in the media (in the New York Times; in newspapers in New Orleans, in psychology, and in articles in police journals). Last year we had a conference in New Orleans, with close to 100 high ranking officers and police administrators from around the country, who are interested in introducing the training in their departments. This year we had another conference like that. I gave the keynote address at both, but many other people are involved. This year we also included a training of trainers, mostly but not all with New Orleans officers, so that there will be officers who can go to other cities to help with training. Baltimore, another very problematic police department, also under a consent decree, in the spring of 2019 appointed the Superintendent of New Orleans to be their police commissioner.

Just a fun little fact, all this might not have happened if I had not said to the reporter calling me from the LA Times after the Rodney King event, asking why police would do such a thing, that I won’t talk to her. She asked why, and I said because I talk to you for 45 minutes and then you write one sentence about it. She said no, I will write what you say. She did, in a front-page article in the LA Times. I was then invited to give a talk at a conference aimed to address such police behavior, and after that to develop a training.

SG: In your autobiographical paper, published last year, you said your work has shown knowledge gained in research can be used to make a difference in the world. But how do we make this knowledge more accessible to different audiences and inspire change?

ES: This is a real challenge. I have done a number of mini-workshops for an Africa group in the CIA about our work in Rwanda, the workshops also addressing ways to promote reconciliation between groups in general. Reconciliation improves lives but is also necessary to prevent renewed violence. I have talked at a number of daylong events organized by the State Department, with the CIA a silent but active partner—because there was a person at the CIA of sufficient influence, who had a strong interest in the prevention of genocide and other mass violence.

The participants at these events were analysts, who I assume conveyed information to decision-makers. However, having decision-makers there would have been different, anywhere along the chain of power, ideally even the Secretary of State. We could then have engaged in discussion about how to transform whatever knowledge exists into policies.
Former U.S. Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright and former Defense Secretary [William] Cohen wrote a small book about the U.S. acting to prevent mass atrocities. Their central idea was to create an interagency group for atrocity prevention. Each member of the group would be part of another agency, as well as the Atrocity Prevention Board. I wrote at a number of places that part of this idea was great since the different agencies could coordinate and work together, but part of it was flawed. If there is not also a central group whose only task is atrocity prevention, that goal would be secondary for everyone, and possibly not much would happen. After President Obama created an Atrocity Prevention Board, it seemed to have accomplished little.

Members of the Wilson Center in Washington succeeded in bringing leading members of the opposing sides together in Burundi, Hutus, and Tutsis, many of them military, for a series of meetings/workshops. This was highly promising, and for a while, Burundi seemed to do well. But antagonism and violence have flared up again.

In Rwanda, we did workshops for varied groups: organizations that worked with groups in the community on healing and reconciliation, community leaders, as well as national leaders—government ministers, advisors for the President, members of the Supreme Court, journalists, and others. We did this, my partner Laurie Anne Pearlman, a clinical psychologist, and specialist in psychological trauma, and myself, in collaboration with a Rwandan organization, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. We offered my conceptions of the origins of genocide, based on an analysis of a number of genocides, and avenues to prevention and reconciliation. We also talked about healing, primarily the work of Laurie. Some of the leaders and others in our workshops asked us to expand this work, and we created educational radio programs that began to broadcast in 2004 and are still ongoing.
There were informational programs, and an extremely popular radio drama, that started with a conflict between two villages, with information embedded in it, over a long period of time moving on to reconciliation.

We conducted research to evaluate the effects, separately, of our first workshop, and the educational radio drama at the end its first year. Both had a meaningful impact. But the broad effects on the population are difficult to know. Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, who led the Tutsis to defeat the government and associated groups who were perpetrating the genocide of 1994, keeps a very firm hold on the country. On the one hand, this is an enlightened hold, that has led to substantial economic progress, and some measure of equality between Tutsis and Hutus. On the other hand, he does not tolerate political opposition and has maintained a firm control on power, jailing potential rival presidential candidates, or getting them to leave the country. There has been no organized hostility toward any group; in fact, the opposite, led by an ideology that there are no Hutus and Tutsis, just Rwandans.

But the government strongly discourages and even punishes people talking about Hutu and Tutsi, which makes discussing and addressing issues between the groups challenging. We would know the true impact of our work if hostility between groups began to emerge, and it would be resisted.

Working with leaders is important. So is working at the community level, both because the community can contribute to change, and because it has to accept change offered by leaders. But leaders ought to be involved. There have probably been more events bringing Israelis and Palestinians together than any other groups in conflict. But it has not resolved the antagonism between Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps because leaders have not been part of such events. Education, processes of healing, reconciliation, deep engagement with each other, creating joint projects that benefit all parties, involving both citizens and leaders, and creating structures that bring citizens together are all important. An essential question is how to activate those with political and financial resources to bring about such processes.

Engaging educational television dramas or radio dramas where television is still scarce can bring core principles that apply to every country to large audiences. In Rwanda, between 80 and 90% of the population has listened to the radio drama. Additional components can make such programs relevant to particular audiences at particular times. This, combined with creating workshops for leaders and finding ways to entice them to participate in them, may bring substantial change in the ways groups address conflict.    

SG: What do you wish people knew more about helping and positive bystandership?

ES: It is possible to raise children who will be caring, helping, active bystanders in important realms, who can also develop the moral courage to act in the face of opposition and potential negative consequences. Raising them these ways also makes violence by them less likely and resistance to evolution in their group toward violence more likely. Children requires love and affection to learn to care about and help other people. But they also require guidance, by values first of all, and by rules derived from positive values. However, harsh treatment, authoritarian rule setting, does not have positive effects. They also need positive helping models. Actually guiding them to engage in positive actions is essential. I have done a series of studies in my early work on “learning by doing.” Children made toys for poor hospitalized children, or older children taught younger children. Both contributed to later helping.

I have written a great deal about how to raise helpful children, and so have other people. However, it is parents, teachers, peers, and society—social media, movies, video games, the example of public figures—that raise children. Parents and teachers can do a lot to counteract negative outside influences to a reasonable degree. But for them to raise children these ways, many of them have to change, in values, skills, [and] personality. Some teachers easily interpret the behavior of a child as disrespectful and respond harshly. Some parents and teachers set rules in an authoritarian manner. They need to learn about themselves, learn where this comes from in their own life experience, and be guided and supported to change and become optimal socializers.

It is also possible to help people who have suffered abuse, violence, and neglect, to become caring and helpful. Some people who have suffered become withdrawn, hostile, or violent. But since many people suffer, for the world to be caring rather than hostile, the phenomenon I have named “altruism born of suffering” is of great importance. Some people we have studied said: I help others because I have suffered. Trauma psychologists say trauma is determined both by traumatizing experiences and what happens afterward. For many who have suffered to become altruists requires positive connections, support by other people, and opportunities for healing.

It is possible for governments—city, state, national—to draw on expertise around them, and create institutions in a society that help develop positive relations between subgroups, between majorities and minorities. What leaders say, what the media writes, what is in the literature about different groups in society all matter. Creating opportunities for members of different groups to have deep, significant—not superficial—contact, especially in projects with shared goals, is especially valuable for positive relations. The road to the European Union, for example, included large scale joint projects between countries.

SG: After 10 and a half years, you said you were emotionally ready to look at the dark side: the roots of violence between groups, especially genocide and mass killing. What helped you become emotionally ready?

ES: As I said earlier, both goodness and evil evolve. We also change progressively in our own lives, work, and personal. As a child, I was surrounded by the evil of Nazism and its tremendous threat to our lives, and then to the limitations of freedom and life under communism. But what impressed me especially was the goodness of the people who in the midst of evil were helping us at great potential risk to themselves. Two people of great importance were Raoul Wallenberg, and Maria Gogan, a Christian woman who worked for my family. She stayed with us throughout this horrible period. She took me and my very young sister into hiding with a Christian family for a while—I was 6, she not yet 1-1/2 years old. Later she helped us get food at great risk to herself. So it is not surprising that I started studying the influences leading to helping, the roots of goodness. But it was also probably the case that I was not ready to look eye to eye at the horrors of the Holocaust. So for over a decade, I did research on what leads people to help others, or not to help when there is need, and how helping may be increased, in children and adults.

At the end of this period, I published three books. I was exhausted, but fortunately, I had a sabbatical, and after some recovery, I started to read a book about Germany and the Holocaust. My work on helping also engaged with people not helping, which was a kind of stepping stone to people perpetrating harm.

I was easing myself gradually into the study of genocide. It was a progressive evolution. A serious source of my engagement became, as I was readying that first book, that on the basis of my research and study of goodness and its absence, I thought I had the beginning of an understanding how such terrible things might come about—for example, by people rather than feeling responsible for the welfare of members of another group, relinquishing responsibility. I became increasingly committed and studied first the Holocaust, and then other genocides and mass killings. Much later, I also studied terrorism.

Although I wrote articles about genocide along the way, and did a variety of other work, writing my first book on genocide, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, took eight years. Part of the reason was that in addition to social science research and concepts, which I was familiar with, important data for me was history. For each case I wrote about, I studied the history of that society and its culture, including relations between the groups that became perpetrators and victims, current conditions in the society, and more. All along my purpose in understanding the roots of such great violence was to learn how it can be prevented; and how groups can reconcile after great violence, thereby to improve people’s lives and prevent new violence. Without, reconciliation, there is usually renewed violence.

So my shift from studying “goodness” to my commitment to study “evil” was a progressive evolution.

SG: If more policymakers and institutions took action on the research you’ve presented, and it was scaled up further, how do you think the world would look?

ES: A crucial realm of action is the way we raise children. Will they develop inclusive caring, see the humanity of everyone? Or will they draw lines between themselves and others? Does their experience lead them to see danger even when it is not there, ready to protect themselves with force even if this is not necessary? Parents/families, teachers/schools are essential in this. Children with positive experiences and guidance will be more difficult to incite against others, and more likely to become positive, active bystanders.

Adults can also have experiences that ameliorate painful life experiences and help them constructively fulfill basic material and psychological needs. They can become more inclusively caring. Groups can stop drawing sharp lines between themselves and other groups. For all this to happen requires not only opportunities for personal healing and growth, but also constructive engagement, policies, and institutions that bring members of different groups together. As in Amsterdam, guided by proposals based on research, cities [and] countries can initiate ways to positively engage ethnic, racial, religious groups with each other—to meet, learn about each other, develop significant connections.

In other words, it is possible to make a positive difference, if parents, teachers, policymakers, and institutions constructively engage. What might this better world look like? Individuals and groups would still have conflicts, but they would cooperate to resolve them peacefully. In really difficult times in a society, which people don’t know how to address constructively at least in the short run, they would not devalue other groups, scapegoat them and turn to destructive ideologies. The psychological needs and emotional processes, such actions aim to address can be even better served through connections to people/and between groups, and by creating inclusive visions that embrace every group.  Caring about others can lead to addressing people’s immediate needs—like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s work programs during the great depression in the U.S.—and constructive planning for long term actions.

SG: Why has the work you’ve been involved with and led been important for you?

ES: I think I cover this in a number of responses. I have survived a genocide, lived under the repressive system of communism, but also experienced the goodness of a few people who in the most dangerous times endangered their lives to save us/help us. I feel really moved when I see or hear about kind actions, especially if they help people in serious danger or need. And it is very upsetting to me when innocent people suffer cruelty at the hands of others. It is these experiences and feelings that have made my work important for me.

I used to get really upset, write letters to editors, try to do something when I read or saw on television innocent people greatly harmed. As just one example, I found the actions of the Contras in Nicaragua deeply upsetting. Funded by the U.S., they destroyed schools and killed children. I have lived in the United States since 1959, and consider myself an American. I get especially upset when it is my country that unnecessarily harms people, when it engages in unnecessary wars with many people killed, or does not attempt to stop, or even better prevent genocides. I cannot do anything significant about many of these things. But try to act within at least some of the realms in which I can do something.

SG: In your autobiographical paper, you said the work you have done was in part shaped by your life experiences. Early in your career, you said you tried avoiding these connections. Did you find that process easy or difficult?

ES: I tried to avoid connecting my personal experience and my work for two reasons. First, I received my Ph.D. at Stanford, in a department that was very focused on science and scientific research. This made me feel that the research questions I explored should be based on scientific hypotheses and deal with data, rather than personal feelings and experiences. Second, as I was giving talks about my work, I thought that if people thought my research was motivated by personal experiences, they would discount it, at least somewhat. Both of these are wrong. Many research questions are based on personal experience, certainly in the social sciences. That does not mean that the research is not rigorous, that the findings are not valid.

Was avoiding these connections difficult? Actually, no. I was immersed in my work. I just did not think much about its relationship to my early life. Occasionally, the connections became very present, however. As I was reading a novel about a Nazi doctor who did cruel experiments on children and adolescents at Auschwitz, I cried and thought I am doing this work (at the time studying what leads people to be caring and helpful) so that such things won’t happen.

At some point, I realized that many of the people who work on the topics I work on do so because of personal connections to events of goodness and evil. That my personal experience does not discount my work—perhaps strengthens it—especially because at Stanford, I was trained to be a careful research scientist. I started to talk, and at times, write about my personal experiences.

However, there was a fairly long road to this. After my book The Roots of Evil… was published, which received quite a bit of positive attention, someone who came to give a talk at UMass from Harvard said that the book was obviously a labor of love. I took this at first as diminishing it from the hopefully significant contribution to understanding the roots of genocide and mass killing, which can guide us toward prevention. I took it as just an expression of something personal. Well, how dumb can one be?

SG: You’ve just turned 81. You’ve just returned from a trip where you were training trainers for New Orleans police officers. This year, you received the Kurt Lewin Award “for outstanding contributions to the development and integration of psychological research and social action” from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. In 2018, the Society gave you the Otto Klineberg Intercultural and International Relations Award. What inspires you to keep on working?

ES: Most of my life, I have been asking the question, how to live life. At some point, I was thinking about writing a book with the title “On not knowing how to live life.” But all that time I was working extremely hard. I believe it was probably my early experiences which I mentioned before, and my various dislocations—escaping from Hungary with friends at age 18, still a communist country that did not allow people to leave the country, living in Vienna for two and a half years, then when I got a visa coming to the U.S. alone, that led me to frequently ask that question. But on the other hand, because of my experiences, I had a deep need to try to make the world a better place.

I often wondered why I work so hard (especially if I don’t know how to live life). Once in therapy, I came up with one answer—I want to prove to the Nazis that I am alive. Perhaps the guidance of my advisor in graduate school at Stanford, Walter Mischel, also contributed. He believed in and modeled and inspired me to work hard and be productive. But the fact is that every time I felt that some work I had the possibility of doing might make a positive, possibly significant difference, I was energized, and moved forward.

After my trip this year to New Orleans to work with police, and San Diego to give an award talk, I felt low on energy, and for a while did not feel like doing anything. But fairly soon, I recovered. However, I have been telling people—I am cutting this out, cutting that out. Then they say, I have heard that before. I just canceled a trip to Macedonia to give a couple of talks. But I will go to Maine to do three days of lectures/workshops. I just got another invitation, which seems worthwhile, to give talks over two days, and decided to do it. I am still a bit like a moth attracted to the flame. If some work seems to be of significant value, from the perspective I hold, it is difficult for me to resist. Obviously, I still don’t know how to live life. But I am only 81.

SG: What do you want to learn more about?

ES: I would like to learn more about how we could make everyone a morally courageous “active bystander.”  I do know a fair amount about it, and also about how to prevent mass violence. But knowing is a very long way from being able to make it happen. I believe one always has to answer three questions: what does one want to bring about—for example helping as many people as possible, leaders, people in the middle (the media, clergy, etc.) and the population, to become active bystanders who are concerned with and attempt to address the needs and suffering of people—group violence, poverty, individual suffering, and so on; how to do it, in this case how to generate active bystandership, in general and in specific realms; and who needs to do it, what individuals and institutions have the knowledge, skills, position, financial capacity and power to bring it about. To affect great social processes, whatever they are, you have to decide what needs to be done, how it can be done, and who can do it.

I have worked on generating active bystandership in a variety of realms. In addition to police, I and associates have developed and employed a program/curriculum to train students in schools to be active bystanders who attempt to prevent or stop harmful behavior by fellow students toward other students, with an evaluation study that showed positive effects. But I would like to learn how to get decision-makers to do what leaders in Rwanda did, and the mayor and other leaders of Amsterdam did, inform themselves and take relevant actions. In Rwanda, we initiated working with leaders, but they were ready, eager, mostly younger people, new leaders, who wanted to know how to move forward after the genocide in 1994. They asked us after a while to expand our work, and we moved then from workshops with various groups, to educational radio programs. In Amsterdam, the mayor and city officials initiated a process, organized a conference after violence in the city, asked me to make proposals to improve ethnic Dutch-Muslim relations, and followed up with actions. How can we get others with relevant values to move into leadership positions, or engage those who already are in such positions and hold such values, who are open to gaining relevant knowledge and skills, and have the determination and courage for action?  

SG: You’ve also been working on blind and constructive patriotism. Can you tell us more about that and its relevance today?

ES: On the basis of observing the world around us, not only in the U.S. but also in other countries, I developed a conception or hypothesis about people varying in the nature of their love of their country. I thought some people believe that whatever their country does is right, or ‘my country right or wrong.’ I called this blind patriotism. On the other end of this dimension or variation, I thought that some other people, when they see their country deviating from universal human values, for example, respect for the welfare of all human beings regardless of what race, ethnicity or nation they belong to or deviating from their country’s own central, core values, feel the need to speak out, to respond, to oppose.

We developed a measure to assess these two types of patriotism and gave participants in the study a number of other measures. We could differentiate and classify people on the basis of their responses as blind and constructive patriots. The former spent less time and made less effort to inform themselves about politics. They disliked other countries’ use of what they considered American, for example, playing baseball. They had lower scores on pro-social orientation than constructive patriots—that is, had a less positive view of human nature/human beings, were less empathic, and felt less responsibility for the welfare of other people.

Given Donald Trump’s behavior, it is hard to imagine that people with a strong prosocial orientation would be committed Trump followers. Some people follow him because of self-interest, like his tax cuts that so greatly benefited corporations and the very wealthy. Some may follow him because their life circumstances have been difficult, and other leaders were not creating policies to help them, so they took a risk on this risky man. But many followers seem likely to be blind patriots, who like his slogan “Make America Great Again,” who can feel pride in the U.S. standing up to China and Mexico on trade, showing power and determination even if it causes economic damage. They also may feel that when President Trump acts dismissively toward old allies, like members of the European Union and its leaders, he shows the power of the U.S. Perhaps they interpret such behavior as expressions of American superiority. For them, this presumed show of strength may override concerns about President Trump’s often dishonest and abusive behavior.

Once committed to a leader, to Donald Trump, they would be less likely to oppose him, and more likely to follow him in his hostile rhetoric and policies toward people trying to come into this country as refugees from Central America or Mexico, or already in this country from those places. In addition, of course, some of his followers may join him because they hold, or are open to, such hostile attitudes/ideologies.  

SG: Is there a piece of advice or words of wisdom that have stuck with you during your life? If yes, could you share?

ES: I don’t know whether this counts as words of wisdom. When I had setbacks over the years, especially in the realm of my work but also in other realms, I would be upset for a day and night, and next day I would start over again, driven by the spirit don’t give up. Or, you can overcome this.

Also, over the years, I have come to realize even more than before how much friendly attention, even in small ways, matters to people. I try to live by that.

In addition to my studying cultures in books, working in a number of countries, it was evident that there are significant cultural differences, and one has to work in every setting with awareness of this. Sometimes it involves simply respecting these differences. Sometimes one has to deal with the obstacles they create, both practical and emotional. For example, in a number of cultures where I worked, for a long time or briefly—Rwanda, Colombia—people’s sense of time, and their respect for agreements about meeting times, and even coming to meetings agreed upon, can be different from Western countries. This was initially upsetting to me. For effective collaboration, it has to be addressed, but thoughtfully, sensitively, and without an expectation that having discussed them, cultural differences will disappear. However, there were significant individual differences in this, and differences having to do with roles and circumstances. The problem was greater with early collaborators, much less with later ones—so we must have learned something.

There were no such problems with participants in our workshops, who were usually on time, although many came from long distances. This may have had to do in part with Rwanda being a country with strong respect for authority, and as outsiders and leaders of workshops, we were considered authorities. But it may also be that the workshops, addressing their past suffering and trying to help them create a better future, were very important to participants.

It is also important to work with people in other countries collaboratively. It is easy to believe that given our training, and coming from more “developed” countries, we are the experts. But the people who live with the issues we try to address have their own traditions, for example about reconciliation, and knowledge of history and circumstances. In our workshops in Rwanda, when we worked with people who worked with groups in the community, our goal was to integrate the approach we offered with what participants have done in their own workshops so that they can use this integrated approach in their future workshops.

Finally, what I consider another aspect of wisdom is to check with local people the extent that knowledge we offer is considered by them applicable to their situation. For example, we presented in Rwanda my conception of the origins of genocide, with examples from other countries, and then asked participants in our workshops to apply it to Rwanda. As they do so, drawing on their own experience, they gain I believe what I call experiential understanding of the principles we presented. This is likely to have greater influence than simply knowing them. I used this approach in other places as well, for example, in Belgrade during the violence in Bosnia. I use versions of this in work with the police, for example, in training trainers asking them why they think some police officers engage in unnecessary harmful actions, and what they think might inhibit interventions by fellow officers. It is after discussing what they have offered that I present my own views and relevant research findings on these issues, which often overlap with what they have said.

SG: What’s one thing we can do on an individual level each day to promote caring, helping, and active bystandership?

ES: Take opportunities, or create opportunities for yourself, to help others, or promote the social good, to be active bystanders even if in small ways. Create opportunities for other people to help someone, or promote the social good, even if in small ways. Sometimes you can invite another person or persons to join you in doing this. At other times you can join individuals or organizations. Since caring, helping, active bystandership evolve progressively, this is likely to increase over time how much good we do. In addition, reciprocity is a universal social norm and a psychological force. There is also generalized reciprocity. People who are helped are likely to “pay forward” and help others.

This makes even small actions matter. Allowing a person coming from a side street to enter the line of cars in front of you may make it more likely that that person will do a kind act, probably small, perhaps not. So does smiling and being nice to a checkout person at a grocery store.  

We can also work on being open to others’ need. Part of this is to not allow ourselves to so focus on our important work or other activities that we have neither the time, attention, or energy to act on behalf of other people, our community, the social good. Which of us has at times not acted when we should have? We do need to balance our concerns and obligations with those of others, but if others’ need is great, hopefully, we can attend to it.

I have often had people who wanted to find some ways to make a contribution, to volunteer, come up after talks I gave, and say there are so many issues and problems—I don’t know what to do. I usually said, choose one realm that is close to your heart. If you want to help children, there are many programs. Research shows, for example, that the Big Brothers Big Sisters program provides children with substantial benefits. In addition, also respond to great emergencies. Help as best as you can after 9/11, or after a genocide somewhere, with funds or when possible also in more direct ways, working with organizations that try to do the difficult thing of helping people after such tragedies.  

Finally, attend to the children; your own, your grandchildren, other people’s children. In a kind, gentle, understated way. One of my friends grew up in a very difficult family with painful experiences. He told me how much it meant to him that his neighbors, apparently aware of his family situation, asked him in, just a few times. The man in that family liked carpentry and spent time with him building something. Their kindness, he felt, had a lifelong effect on him. I also encountered other stories like this. In a different but somewhat related realm, I asked students to write “personal papers” in some of my classes, applying the course material to their own lives. A few reported how a teacher in high school turned their lives around, by caring, kindness, and attention to them as individuals and students. Everyone has the potential to be an active, positive bystander, and make a difference in the world. 

This interview was originally published on


  • Ervin Staub taught at Harvard, and is Professor Emeritus and Founding Director of the doctoral program in the Psychology of Peace and Violence at the University of Massachusetts,  Amherst. He is past President of the International Society for Political Psychology and of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence. His last two books are the award winning Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism,  2011 and The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil: Inclusive caring, moral courage, altruism born of suffering, active bystandership and heroism,  2015. He engaged with varied “real world” projects, including work with  teachers/schools and parents to promote altruism in children, projects in Rwanda, Burundi and the Congo to promote reconciliation, in Amsterdam to promote positive Dutch-Muslims relations, and training of police to develop active bystandership by officers to stop other officers from doing unnecessary harm, and of students to stop harmful actions by fellow students.  For awards and downloads of articles, see