Lessons From the Jungle

During her six years in captivity, the former Colombian presidential candidate learned that those who are stripped of power lash out against those who are equally powerless—just like children in a schoolyard.
  • Transcript


Question: What did your experience as a captive teach you about human psychology?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Well I think that what I realized is that there are not good people and bad people.  We all have in ourselves some good and some bad and I could see a pattern of behavior in the guards that were holding me hostage.  I had groups that will shift every two months, but every time they will behave the same way.  At the beginning they would be respectful and trying to be helpful and behaving with compassion, but after two or three weeks, this would just completely change and they will be behaving in a very nasty, cruel way and sometimes sadistic too. And what I think is that when you have some situations in which you have some factors that come together the bad in human condition just bumps up and I would say that when you have a very disbalanced relationship... These guys were armed.  They could kill us.  There were no witnesses.  There was a hierarchy where the guards could just hide behind that hierarchy thinking they were not responsible for what they were doing because they were obeying orders.  And then the other factor was the pressure of the group.  When all those factors are combined then you have a shift in the behavior of people and it unleashes the sadistic part of the human being.

There was a study in Stanford done in the '70s where they had taken a group of students—people that were not traumatized, I mean good healthy nice people—and they arbitrarily divided them in two groups.  One were, let's say, the guards and the other were the prisoners. And after a while what was incredible is that knowing they were friends and knowing it was just a study and it was a fake situation they began acting abusively the guards and submissively the prisoners. And that is something that shows the limits of our behavior. And of course the environmental and the situation does a lot into how we behave, but I think there is also one thing, which is character and principles because I could see some of the guards that would have a special character—more tough, more independent, less let’s say sensitive from pressure—and they could just even though they were pushed to act in an aggressive or harsh way they would try to control themselves and act in a human way. Human as, let’s say, respectful and not abusive. 

So that is why I think there is limits to the assumption that wherever you are, the situation in a way tells you how to behave.  I think that for example as a prisoner of course I was pressured to become very submissive and in a way the syndrome of Stockholm is when you shift position and then you become like you’re supposed to act, which is accepting the authority of those who have abducted you. And well in my case I really tried all the time to just prevent myself to fall into that and it was hard.  It was hard not only because of course of the punishment that would mean coming from the guards, but also because of the reaction of some of my companions that had fallen into this submissive way of thinking and that saw me as a threat for them, or as somebody that could harm them because I wouldn’t play the game.

Question: Did the power dynamic with your guards affect how you related to your fellow captives?

Ingrid Betancourt:  Yes, we saw that.  We saw between the group of hostages two things.  First that the humiliation and cruelty we were being subjected to, we would pass it to the ones living in the same condition. So, in a way if we had been treated in a cruel way we would be bitter and cruel to the ones beside us. And that's something I saw many times. And the other thing was that it was easier for the hostage to forgive the guards that were being horrible to us—I mean cruel, humiliating, sometimes violent and sadistic, sometimes. But that you could forgive easier than you could forgive a companion that was a hostage like you and that had done really nothing.  Like for example, wouldn’t have said hello to you in the morning or wouldn’t have helped you in something you needed and that resentfulness would be very difficult to administrate in the sense that I could see that some of my fellow hostages would forgive the guards and not our companions.

Recorded on October 19, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller