Torturing animals, for instance, was just good clean fun

How does cruelty and sadism get normalized?

Another passage from the “Humanitarian Revolution” chapter of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Warning: torture, again

But the practical function of cruel punishments was just a part of their appeal. Spectators enjoyed cruelty, even when it served no judicial purpose. Torturing animals, for instance, was just good clean fun.

In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning,


in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. [p 145]

He goes on, but I yanked my eyes away after the first words; no way I’m going to type them.

Yet people watched it for amusement.

How does this work?

On me it produces a visceral, unavoidable flinching, accompanied by some mild shock-like symptoms.

Now, I’m not a particularly delicate flower. I’m not reporting my reaction to boast of my great sensitivity, because I don’t think my level of sensitivity is at all unusual. I think it’s just normal.

I’ve tried mentally substituting a less charismatic animal, but it doesn’t make much difference.

The explanation is reasonably clear in the case of psychopaths, but they’re a small minority, so that doesn’t help.

There are explanations of how it works when people have to do it in one sense or another – at gunpoint or because they’re part of a disciplined organization and the like, but that doesn’t explain recreational torture-spectating.

I’ve never understood the appeal of bullfights and dog fights and cock fights.

I don’t understand how people can hack a helpless unarmed human being to death with machetes.

I don’t know how this works.


  1. says

    Civilized and well adjusted people can’t comprehend or think up the abhorrent things that some people do to animals and to other people. We should be glad of that.

    My old man, not so much. He gleefully (read: sickeningly) talked about when he was young tying firecrackers to the tails of cats and watching them try to run away from the noise. I have always wondered if one of our family’s two cats really died by licking paint or if he intentionally killed it. I was too young then to say for certain.

    From 2002: “Bush isn’t a Moron, He’s a Cunning Sociopath”

    If we believe the psychiatrists, a sign of a future serial killer is a child who delights in torturing and killing animals. George W., as a child, did exactly that. In a May 21, 2000, New York Times’ puff piece about the values Bush gained growing up in Midland, Texas, Nicholas D. Kristof quoted Bush’s childhood friend Terry Throckmorton: “‘We were terrible to animals,’ recalled Mr. Throckmorton, laughing. A dip behind the Bush home turned into a small lake after a good rain, and thousands of frogs would come out. ‘Everybody would get BB guns and shoot them,’ Mr. Throckmorton said. ‘Or we’d put firecrackers in the frogs and throw them and blow them up.'”

  2. says

    People like to think we’re some sort of dazzling pinnacle of evolution. We’re not. We’re just another animal doing stupid animal shit to each other and to other animals. It just so happens that our evolutionary advantage of intelligence allows us to devise newer and more horrible ways to do that stupid animal shit.

  3. Sili says

    It’s horrible to read, yes, but is it really all that different from, say, dairy farming?

  4. Z says

    How does this work?

    If you are on a reading spree of Big Important Books With a Message (sarcasm intended), I suggest Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect. It provides a piece of the answer. Zimbardo was the organiser of the Stanford Prison Experiment, of which you have probably heard.

    Also, I suggest taking anything Pinker writes about history with a grain of salt – he’s not a historian.

  5. quixote says

    Tabby? It doesn’t have much to do with the “animal” part of our nature. I’m a biologist (admittedly, zoology is not my specialty) and I can’t think of a single example of a sadistic animal. One showstopper issue is that enjoyment of another’s suffering requires the ability to understand that they are other, what the philosopher-whose-name-I’ve-forgotten called an I-Thou relationship. Only a few highly intelligent and social animals even approach that, and I’ve never heard of dogs, chimps, dolphins, crows, or parrots torturing conspecifics.

    That’s a people thing. So much so that I could imagine animals, if they were capable of it, saying, “That’s stupid human shit. We don’t do that.”

  6. says

    I’ve read The Lucifer Effect. I once had a brief online conversation with Zimbardo about Irish industrial schools.

    I know Pinker is not a historian.

  7. yazikus says


    It’s horrible to read, yes, but is it really all that different from, say, dairy farming?

    I get what you are saying, but in most cases, I would say yes, it really is very, very different (from all but the worst farming operations). People don’t generally start dairies to get their jollies off by torturing cows, they do it because they want milk or money. And tortured cows probably don’t produce the most or the best milk, so it is not in their best interest to torture and kill them.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    That cat-burning stuff is pretty revolting, yeah.

    16th-century Paris, though — those were some pretty bad times for humans, too. Maybe if your own life sucked really, really badly, so that every day felt like torture, then you might enjoy seeing someone else suffer as well.

    So my first theory would be that, to make people kinder, you need to make them more comfortable. But then there’s the research showing that wealthy people have less compassion than poorer people. So I don’t know, I really don’t know.

    From the standpoint of a science-fiction writer — if you could design your own utopia from the ground up, and you wanted it to be self-sustaining, how would you do it? I’m not being facetious — I do believe that society has been improving by fits and starts over the centuries. I just wonder what’s driving the change, why it’s so slow, and what we can do to speed up the process.

  9. tecolata says

    Have you seen the photos of lynchings? They were not secret. They were announced in advance, politicians made speeches, preachers gave prayers, people packed picnics and took their children to watch a person tortured to death. Then they tried to get pieces of his/her body or clothing as souvenirs.

    That was the 20th century.

    What about the men who stand around taking pictures and videos of women and girls being raped, and circulate on the Internet? They hear the screaming and sobbing and they laugh.

    That is 21st century.

    I don’t claim to understand it.

  10. chirez says

    It doesn’t seem that mysterious to me. I suspect that visceral reaction you feel is a consequence of having learned to empathise with animals. Almost every human being feels empathy, but as far as I know the emotion is only wired to a fairly limited subset of people. A large part of the process of civilisation is learning to extend that limited empathic response to first all people, then animals, perhaps further.

    The answer is simply that in the times when such entertainments were common, people were not taught to feel what the cat feels. In which case you can set it on fire and feel no more than you would for a lump of coal.

    I think empathy is a good thing, I am not of the opinion that setting cats on fire for fun was a particularly uplifting experience, but people are fundamentally horrible. Which is why it’s exceptionally important to teach them to be better. Usually at a very young age.

  11. chirez says

    Oh, and quixote, #5?

    I am not well versed enough to be sure of any of this, but isn’t it true that chimps are generally pretty horrible to each other? I mean, they kill each other in some really brutal ways, and I feel like I’ve read stories of them ganging up to beat another chimp to death. Seems not a million miles away, though I have no clue how you would go about figuring out whether they enjoyed it.

    The stories about dolphin rape gangs are pretty common too, though again the same caveats apply.

    Admittedly none of them are liable to torture other animals, but I think of the way house cats play with their prey and they definitely enjoy that for some reason. I don’t tend to consider humans uniquely special most of the time, except in that for good or ill our intelligence places another layer of behaviour on top of our instincts.

  12. says

    While reading this blog post, my thoughts wandered to nature shows with predators attacking and killing prey animals. Watching a show like that has never particularly bothered me–I might feel some unease if the animal is clearly suffering, but something about it just seems normal. Animals kill and devour each other.

    However, I find pain inflicted on animals or people by other people to be extremely distressing. I completely understand what you mean when you wrote “mild shock-like symptoms.” As a very tame example, once one of our cats jumped up on the kitchen counter where we don’t like the cats to be, so I squirted her with a water bottle. Normally this is no harm at all, but the cat lost her footing as she tried to jump and more or less fell off the counter and hit her head against a wooden magazine holder. She ran off, apparently unhurt, but the image of her hitting her head against that hard object and the thought that I had caused it bothers me to this day. What if she had really been hurt, or paralyzed?

    I cannot even begin to comprehend what it must take to hack a person to death with a machete. That is so far outside the bounds of what I would personally even be able to witness, much less perpetrate, that I simply cannot wrap my head around it.

  13. says

    tecolata @ 10 – yes, yes I have. I know; they too are part of what I’m thinking about. It’s much the same as these guys with the machetes. Not guns, but machetes.

  14. says

    chirez @ 11 – No, I don’t think so. The part I didn’t type and didn’t finish reading was about the cats’ screams. Coal doesn’t scream.

  15. Silentbob says

    @ 14 Ophelia Benson

    This photo will make your blood curdle. (Warning: it shows the corpse of a lynched black man surrounded by smiling white people, including little girls.) It was taken in Florida in 1935. Yes, the USA, 80 years ago.

    If that isn’t chilling enough, try this: The “crime” of the black man, Rubin Stacy, was apparently that he knocked on the door of a white woman asking for food (he was homeless).

  16. Ysanne says

    I totally agree with brucegee1962 @ 9, and I’d like to add: I think it’s about the feeling of power and strength. The ability to do something to something/someone whether they like it or not. Empathy is what should be keeping it in check by balancing this feeling against one’s own mirrored discomfort.
    It would fit with why it’s such a recurring thing with kids when they haven’t quite learned empathy yet but are desperate to feel their own ability to impact on the world around them. It would also fit with how in times when people feel powerless to make their lives better, torturing animals or people seems like a relief, as long as you can manage to not identify/empathise with the victim (again easier if you lack the time and comfort to think about what it might be like to be not yourself).

  17. Silentbob says

    Oh, @ 16 I forgot to add:

    According to Wikipedia, despite the fact he was abducted from police custody, and the photographic evidence, nobody was ever charged with Stacy’s murder.

    The USA. 80 years ago.


  18. says

    Not really too different from today, only the police seem to have taken over the task from the good citizens. Except for the citizen soldiers, such as this guy who shot a black woman for—wait for it—KNOCKING ON HIS DOOR.

  19. latsot says

    On me it produces a visceral, unavoidable flinching, accompanied by some mild shock-like symptoms.

    “Flinch” is exactly the right term, at least for me. My brain won’t go there and the rest of my body reacts to it in what might indeed be shock-like symptoms. There is no way I could watch something like that, let alone enjoy it.

    I was brought up poor in the countryside and caught and killed many animals (mostly rabbits), often with my bare hands, out of necessit. We needed to eat. And I shot birds who tried to steal our hens’ eggs. So I’m not at all squeamish. But the thought of enjoying it or even of not feeling upset by it, is completely beyond me. I’m not claiming any moral superiority; I did kill those animals when I didn’t strictly have to, even though the reasons seemed good ones at the time. I’m saying that I can’t understand how people could feel that way. Enjoying the sight and sounds of a burning cat seems worse than treating it as an object. It’s treating it as an object that only matters if it can amuse you. I don’t know why that seems worse to me, but it does.


    It’s horrible to read, yes, but is it really all that different from, say, dairy farming?

    I get the feeling that I’m missing something fundamental here. I was brought up on various farms in the UK and they all had dairy herds. The cows were very well looked after, had good food, shelter, medical care and were never kept in muddy conditions that would hurt their feet. Farmers would stay up all night with cows when there was a difficult birth, partly to protect their investment, of course, but also out of compassion. They’d do their best to comfort the animals.

    None of this seems anything like gleefully burning a cat. What am I missing?

  20. mildlymagnificent says

    Torturing animals. I know we no longer have bear baiting in advanced industrial societies (as far as I know), but there are occasional reports of police raids on dog fighting and cockfighting rings in US, UK And Australia. Some circuses still have legal animal acts and lion “taming”.

    That streak of cruelty and/or obliviousness to animal suffering seems pretty widespread. My feeling is that there are still far more people in the world who “break” horses (elephants, donkeys, other beasts of burden) rather than use the more successful and harm-free horse/elephant whispering methods.

  21. latsot says

    For some reason the area I live in is a national blackspot for animal cruelty. People around here keep amassing vast collections of animals they can’t look after and then causing them to suffer until someone calls the RSPCA.

    It’s a strange kind of cruelty. These people want the animals and presumably care about them in some sense…. but somehow don’t recognise that they’re harming them. Making them miserable. Ruining their health.

    There’s a riding school close to my house. The horses look like they’re in good condition but the owner was found to have a dozen dogs in a cage, some of which were found eating the corpses of other dogs that had died from starvation and neglect.

    There’s a kind of smallholding, again within half a mile of my house, which for some reason had lots of rare and very expensive goats. They were kept in abysmal conditions. Starving, riddled with painful disease, cruelly confined.

    There’s an Iguana rescue centre a little further away. This is the North East of England. Iguanas are among the least likely animals to survive here if left to their own devices. Yet enough people buy them and release them into the wild to warrant an actual Iguana rescue centre. The staff told me that people find these iguanas roaming around and bring them into the centre. Iguanas are not like tortoises – natural escape artists – they aren’t getting out of someone’s house on their own.

    I’ve no idea why the North East – and particularly this little part of the North East – is such a hotbed of apparently unthinking animal cruelty, but it is. Drives me crazy that my neighbours are apparently all the time torturing animals and presumably thinking it’s acceptable behaviour.

    I felt guilty that one time I overslept and gave my cat her breakfast an hour late.

  22. Holms says

    He goes on, but I yanked my eyes away after the first words; no way I’m going to type them.

    Yet people watched it for amusement.

    How does this work?

    Short answer: because culture.

  23. freemage says

    latsot: Factory farming, especially in the U.S., can be very, very cruel to the animals, even those not being raised for slaughter. It’s a vastly different world than the sorts of farms you’re describing–there’s not really even a ‘farmer’ in the sense of someone who would sit up with a sick animal overnight.

    As for the question in the OP, hell if I know. “Othering” obviously is the central piece of it; it cuts off the empathic reactions Ophelia describes, because you never relate to their suffering in the first place. But how and why it happens at all–and from there, how we can stop it… I’m still not sure.

  24. Daniel Schealler says

    Engaging in cruelty makes people feel powerful, which in turn comes with a rush of self-esteem and pleasure.

    The cure to cruelty is compassion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *