Basic cruelty by those in power seems to be an element of human design. (Fortunately I’ve encountered a few exceptions.)
In ‘The Glass Teat’ Harlan Ellison recounts a story he says he got from Mattel insiders involved in product testing. A doll was made that upped the ante on the usual wetting and crying, making the reactions a bit more interactive. When rocked gently or given a bottle it would gurgle and coo, but when treated roughly or spanked it would cry.
The test children quickly learned which stimulus would provide which reaction, and also quickly decided which was more fun. Soon the only response coming from the dolls were cries as the children found new ways to trigger them.
Apocryphal, I know, but consistent with what I’ve seen.
Yes, you don’t often see little girls torturing their dollies, but those dollies don’t cry. There’s something about a victim begging for mercy that seems to throw some malignant switch in homo sapiens.
It reminds me a little of the Stanford Prison Experiment. A good overview with pictures and some short video is here.
Briefly, in order to study some aspects of prisons volunteers agreed to play guards and prisoners for at $15 a day for 1-2 weeks. A hallway and some small rooms in the Psych building were made into a “prison” with CCTV monitoring. The students were arbitrarily divided into two groups by a flip of the coin. Half were randomly assigned to be guards, the other to be prisoners.
“Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”