Factors That Contribute To Abusive & Dysfunctional Systems/Institutions

A list of some factors that very often lead to corruption, crime, and mistreatment in any number of systems, including (but not limited to!) education, justice, health care, religion, or business. So if you're looking to write about an abusive mental hospital, a corrupted justice system, an unethical business, or any number of other types of systems/institutions gone horribly wrong, here are some factors that you can use to plausibly build it up with.

Faulty beliefs and assumptions. Prejudices, pseudoscience, and dogmatic traditions that serve no benefit or even cause actual harm can contribute to a dysfunctional or abusive system. For example, a prejudicial belief that a particular demographic of people is inherently inferior or evil will cause people to treat this group with distrust and disdain, which can entail making certain services difficult or impossible for them to obtain or making laws that specifically target them in some way. Likewise, a belief that a particular group is inherently mentally incompetent can lead to people failing to give them adequate education opportunities, or treating them like children or animals. Another common faulty belief is that because something is traditional, it must be perfect as-is.

Ideology valued above reality. Where people consider it more important to maintain and defend a particular worldview than to actually examine the facts and ask themselves whether this worldview is correct and make accordant corrections to their practices. For example, an institution that considers it more important to defend the belief that mental illness is caused by demons than to actually examine actual research on mental illness, or a group that's so firmly convinced of its own moral superiority that it won't stop to consider whether it's actually causing more harm than good and even considers it offensive to ask whether it might be in the wrong at all.

Lack of external oversight. An institution or group that has no external oversight is more likely to fall to corruption than otherwise. For example, if a company that produces food has no outside oversight to make sure that they're complying with health and safety regulations in order to produce a product at less cost, then they can more easily get away with violating those regulations because the only people who could blow the whistle now have a profit motive not to. For another example, if a health facility is left to oversee itself, those who should be reporting patient rights violations might not because they've become desensitized to it, corrupted, or just don't care what happens so long as they're getting paid.

The belief that these practices are for people's own good. For example, believing that other people must have their lives rigidly controlled for their own moral or spiritual good, or believing that people will fall into depraved immorality in no time at all if they aren't stringently punished for each and every infraction, or believing that forcibly imposing one's own culture on others is the only way to turn them into decent, civilized people.

The belief that the people benefit materially from these practices. American slave owners argued that they provided their slaves with food, shelter, and safety. As explored in the documentary Servants: Life Below The Stairs, defenders of the Victorian servant system often claimed that their beaten, overworked, and sickly servants (many of whom were children) were being treated more than fairly because they were being provided with food, shelter, and employment by their masters and mistresses.

The belief that if current practices aren't working, they just need to do it more and harder. For example, believing that if taking certain privileges away from prisoners doesn't stop them from trying to escape, then they need to take more privileges away. Or believing that if a certain therapeutic treatment isn't working that well on certain patients, then these patients just need to do it more.

Automatically assuming that any failure to comply or thrive is a fault on the other person's end. For example, if prison laborers aren't keeping up with the workload they're put under, they're clearly just lazy and rebellious rather than overworked and exhausted. Or if a child complains about the taste or texture of some food, then the child is clearly picky and ungrateful rather than finding the food to be simply too unpalatable to eat.

Emphasizing cooperation before ethics. For example, telling employees not to blow the whistle because if they did, the whole place would be shut down and everyone would lose their jobs, or by telling people that most moral thing they can do is be completely loyal, or refusing to give people certain facts because if they had them, they might realize that the organization they work for isn't worth supporting, or telling them to up their medication dosages if the workload they're put under is harmful to their mental health.

Overall lack of compassion. This can happen because the people in charge are naturally lacking in empathy, or because they've been trained to see those they work with as subhuman or as deserving of inhumane treatment, or because they're emotionally burned out (which can result from being overworked in emotionally-trying situations). Those who lack compassion are more likely to treat people cruelly than otherwise.

Sense of superiority. Whether moral, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, or something else, those who see themselves as superior to others are less likely to recognize their own faults or the faults in their system. They tend to just assume that whatever they're doing is good and just because they're the ones doing it and write off those who disagree as wrong, corrupt, or defective.

Poor budget/budgeting. A lack of funds or poorly-distributed funds often means that people are forced to use substandard equipment and techniques, which in turn produces poorer results. In a medical or therapeutic institution, patients may be turned out sooner than they should be, or they may have to turn more of them away. In a city, law enforcement may go underfunded, resulting in poorer handling of criminal activity. In a school, students may end up with a substandard quality of education.

Emphasizing the bottom line over people's happiness and welfare. This can result in budget cuts that cause the above problems, or reduction in wages that makes it difficult for people to earn enough to live on or afford medical care, or overworking people to the detriment of their physical and mental health, or the creation of a work environment that's so focused on "efficiency" that it ends up being frustrating and demoralizing for the workers.

Emphasizing image over people's happiness and welfare. Essentially, where looking good is considered more important than actually doing or being good. This can result in people having to work in sterile-feeling, individuality-snuffing environments (usually under the pretense of looking "professional"), which in turn can be frustrating and demoralizing. It can also result in governments that punish people for talking about the country's problems.

A poor understanding of what's going on. When people do a poor job of looking into what's going on or immediately jump to conclusions about a situation, they're much more likely to attempt a solution that does not actually solve the problem - if it even addresses the real problem at all. This sort of thing tends to happen when people are limited in time or budget, or when they go into a situation assuming they understand it properly (perhaps on the basis that it resembles another situation they've dealt with before, or perhaps because they're acting on dogmatic belief of some kind) when they actually do not.

Allowance for nepotism and croneyism. Nepotism is favoring one's family members; croneyism is favoring one's close friends and allies. Any system that easily allows either will end up abused by people who'd rather appoint their friends and relatives than appoint those who are actually qualified, or by those who would let people off the hook for unethical behavior or criminal activity on the grounds that they're friends or relatives.

No real way to hold the leadership accountable. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and is absolutely sought by those already corrupt. With no working failsafes in place to rein in and remove bad leadership, it's not a matter of if someone exploits and abuses this fact, but when.

Certain people are set up as unquestionable authority in any way. For example, it might be accepted that some people are owed unquestioning compliance no matter what, or that some people are always to be believed without question. Again, it's not a matter of if someone exploits this to abuse others, but when.

Conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest occurs when circumstances create an incentive to act in a way that undermines the purpose of one's job. For example, let's say an institution is supposed to be rehabilitating patients or prisoners or something, but they're also allowed to use them as free labor for a lucrative business. This fact can incentivize the institution to hold onto their wards longer than necessary or delay their treatment so that they can get more work out of them. For another example, if someone is involved with two organizations that have conflicting goals, then it can be certain that this person isn't working in the best interest of at least one of these groups.

A reverent, worshipful attitude toward the institution/system. Where the institution or system is held up as something that is intrinsically good or noble (even if it has obvious and severe flaws), rather than something that is capable of being good and noble when used and operated by just and responsible people. Making criticism and proposing change is seen as immoral and even treasonous rather than a necessary function to ensure that the system is working efficiently and fairly. When such an attitude prevails, defending and upholding the system simply for its own sake is often perceived as the highest and noblest form of good.

Otherwise forgetting that the institution/system should serve the people, not the other way around. Any institution or system that emphasizes the obedience and adherence to its rules and methods to the point where the question of whether these rules and methods are actually working cannot be seriously asked or considered is dysfunctional, period. The question "is the way we're doing things actually working/helping like it's supposed to, and if not, what can we do to change that?" must be seriously addressed periodically, or else things will go very wrong.

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

On Designing & Writing Oppressive Governments In Your Fiction
Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings

Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
How To Create Fictional Structured Religions
Things About Cults Writers Need To Know
Things Writers Should Know About Big Businesses
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Psychology & Psychotherapists
Things To Know If Your Character Will Be Augmented Or Experimented Upon

Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Tips For Writing Dark Stories, Settings, & Characters
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding

Back to Worldbuilding
Back to Villains & Villainy
Go to a random page!