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Moral Immemorial: The Rarity of Self-Criticism for Previous Generations’ Genocide or Mass Violence


  • We thank Laurent Licata, Michał Bilewicz, and two anonymous reviewers, for their helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Colin Wayne Leach, Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06521-1020 [e-mail:].


Partly in response to political leaders’ public expressions of self-criticism for past generations’ genocide or other mass violence, psychologists have suggested that individuals who are psychologically connected to perpetrators may view themselves as sharing some responsibility. Such broadened self-perception should enable self-criticism for past failures just as it enables self-congratulation for past triumphs. We review studies of self-criticism regarding European colonization (of Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Indonesia) and 20th century genocide (in Bosnia, Germany, Norway, and Rwanda). Self-criticism—feelings of guilt, shame, and responsibility; wanting reparation—tended to be low. Self-criticism appeared to be lowest among nonstudent samples, those allowed to explicitly disagree with self-criticism, and those asked about more recent violence. Theoretical and practical implications of these patterns are discussed.