When psychologists simulate murder – and what it tells us

“Here is something you can’t understand,
…How I could just kill a man”
‘How I Could Just Kill A Man’, by Cypress Hill

Could you put a weighty, replica gun to someone’s head and pull the trigger? This is just what Fiery Cushman and colleagues asked of people in order to explore the psychological basis of our aversion to inflicting harm on other people.

Everyday experience confirms that we’re generally reluctant to hurt other people (psychopaths are a notable exception). But why, exactly? Two subtly different possibilities stand out. On the ‘outcomes aversion’ hypothesis, knowing that a certain action will cause suffering to another person inhibits us from carrying it out. Alternatively, ‘action aversion’ proposes that certain kinds of physical movements — like pulling the trigger of a gun — are themselves intrinsically aversive because we associate them with signals of distress, like screaming and crying, which we in turn find psychologically distressing.

Although these two explanations sound superficially similar, they make different predictions about how people should react to simulated harmful acts. On the outcomes model, people should be relatively indifferent to pulling the trigger of the replica gun, as they know no one will get hurt. Action aversion, however, predicts that people will find this to be difficult, if not traumatic, as the link between guns and suffering is so strong.

To explore these competing explanations, Cushman and colleagues had their participants perform five simulated harmful acts: hitting someone’s leg, smashing their hand, shooting them in the head, cutting their throat, and dashing a baby against a table (all used suitably modified objects to carry out these simulations, such as a rubber hammer, plastic knife and a doll). Participants knew that no one could possibility get hurt in these simulated acts, yet they showed a strong physiological stress response (including increased blood pressure) when performing them, providing support for the action aversion model*. The findings are reported in a paper1 recently published online at Emotion.

In another test of the outcomes and action aversion models, Cushman and colleagues compared stress responses when participants merely witnessed the violent acts compared with carrying them out. While outcome aversion predicts that people should show the same kind of stress response in both settings, as the outcomes are the same, action aversion predicts that carrying out the act should be more stressful — and this is just what the researchers found.

So does this mean that outcomes are largely irrelevant? That would be taking things too far. Apart from one participant who refused to perform any of the required actions, people could generally go through with them — but only because they knew that the outcomes of their actions would not involve any suffering. Yet awareness that these actions were harmlessness didn’t make the experience of performing them unstressful, and similar to comparable motor acts like using a spray can (instead of shooting a gun) or slicing bread (instead of slicing someone’s neck).

And while these findings show how our conscious beliefs about the consequences of our actions can take a back seat to the visceral feelings aroused by the physical act of carrying them out, they don’t show that empathy and victim concern are unimportant. “When people are faced with an opportunity to do real harm, they no doubt take the life and feelings of the potential victim into account,” says Cushman. “But our study suggests that those feelings of empathy aren’t the whole story — we also have a very basic emotional response to the physical and perceptual properties of a harmful action.”

Empathy is also probably crucial to establishing the link between certain actions and aversive feelings in the first place (a connection likely established as we grow up and pick up the basics of social interaction). This would explain why signing a torture warrant or pressing a button to launch a missile — which have foreseeable and very harmful consequences for others — often fail to elicit feelings of moral aversion, suggests Cushman. “Signing your name or pushing a button are typically harmless actions, and so in the unique situations in which they have the potential to do a lot of harm we don’t have the kind of visceral, emotional response that makes up-close and personal actions especially aversive.”

*In a separate set of experiments, Cushman and colleagues explored the links between aversion to harm and physiological stress responses, such as increased blood pressure. First they assessed physiological responses to a commonly used stress task: counting down in steps of 7 from a four-digit number out loud. Then they had subjects consider some classic moral dilemmas that involve killing one person to save the lives of several others, and found that an individual’s stress reactivity in the arithmetic task predicted their aversion to killing one to save many in the dilemmas.

1. Cushman, F., Gray, K., Gaffey, A. & Mendes, W. B. Simulating murder: the aversion to harmful action. Emotion doi: 10.1037/a0025071

APPENDIX: A Clockwork Orange and the logic of action aversion

Perhaps the difference between outcome and action aversion still seems relatively slight. If so, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange may help get a better sense of how they diverge, and why it matters — and I’m going to quote at length here not only because it helps bring the relevant points out, but also so you can enjoy Burgess’s virtuoso prose style. [WARNING: spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the book/seen the film!]

Alex, the violent protagonist of Burgess’s dystopian exploration of free will and morality, has been locked up after one too many nights of marauding mayhem and ultraviolence with his gang of droogs. Two years into a 14-year sentence, Alex gets assigned to an experimental aversion therapy called the Ludovico Technique, which promises to make him fit for reintegration into society within two weeks.

Alex is told that his therapy will simply involve watching some “special films”, along with receiving a series of injections. “Like vitamins?,” Alex asks. “Something like that,” comes the ominous reply from one of his therapists, Dr Branom. Then Alex begins his first treatment session, which takes place in a scientific version of a cinema:

Where I was wheeled to, brothers, was like no sinny I had ever viddied before. True enough, one wall was covered with silver screen, and direct opposite was a wall with square holes in for the projector to project through, and there were stereo speakers stuck all over the mesto. But against the right-hand one of the other walls was a bank of all like little meters, and in the middle of the floor facing the screen was like a dentist’s chair with all lengths of wire running from it, and I had to like crawl from the wheelchair to this, being given some help by another like male nurse veck in a white coat.

Then the treatment begins:

What happened now was that one white-coated veck strapped my gulliver to a like head-rest, singing to himself all the time some vonny cally pop-song. ‘What’s this for?’ I said. And this veck replied, interrupting his like song an instant, that it was to keep my gulliver still and make me look at the screen. ‘But,’ I said, ‘I want to look at the screen. I’ve been brought here to viddy films and viddy films I shall.’ … And then I found they were strapping my rookers to the chair-arms and my nogas were like stuck to a foot-rest. It seemed a bit bezoomny to me but I let them get on with what they wanted to get on with. If I was to be a free young malchick again in a fortnight’s time I would put up with much in the meantime, O my brothers. One vesch I did not like, though, was when they put like clips on the skin of my forehead, so that my top glazz-lids were pulled up and up and I could not shut my glazzies no matter how I tried. I tried to smeck and said: ‘This must be a real horrorshow film if you’re so keen on my viddying it.’ And one of the white-coat vecks said, smecking: ‘Horrorshow is right, friend. A real show of horrors.’

Alex then watches his special films. The first scene is of an old man being brutally gang beaten:

They made a real pudding out of this starry veck, going crack crack crack at him with the fisty rookers, tearing his platties off and then finishing up booting his nagoy plot (this lay all krovvy-red in the grahzny mud of the gutter) and then running off very skorry. Then there was the close-up Gulliver of this beaten-up starry veck, and the krovvy flowed beautiful red. It’s funny how the colours of the like real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.

Now all the time I was watching this I was beginning to get very aware of a like not feeling all that well, and this I put down to the under-nourishment and my stomach not being ready for the rich pishcha and vitamins I was getting here. But I tried to forget this, concentrating on the next film which came on at once, my brothers, without any break at all. This time the film jumped right away on a young devotchka who was being given the old in-out by first one malchick then another then another then another, she creeching away very gromky through the speakers and like very pathetic and tragic and music going on at the same time … And when it came to the sixth of seventh malchick leering and smecking and then going into it and the devotchka creeching on the sound-track like bezooming, then I began to feel sick.

The sickness Alex experiences, caused by the shots in the arm he’s been receiving, are a sign that the Ludovico Technique is working. The films continue — close-up footage of someone having their eyes and teeth extracted from their natural sockets, an old woman being beaten and then burned to death, and some Japanese torture from the Second World War — and Alex gets sicker and sicker until he’s screaming for them to be stopped. ‘Stop it? Stop it, did you say? Why, we’ve hardly started,’ replies one of his therapists.

Later on, Alex is talking with Dr Branom about his horrible first session.

‘Of course it was horrible,’ smiled Dr Branom. ‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning. Your body is learning it.’

Alex is perplexed.

‘But,’ I said, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t understand about feeling sick like I did. I never used to feel sick before. I used to feel like very the opposite. I mean, doing it, watching it I used to feel real horrorshow. I just don’t understand why or how or what —’

Dr Branom explains:

‘What is happening to you now is what should happen to any normal healthy human organism contemplating the actions of the forces of evil, the workings of the principle of destruction. You are being made sane, you are being made healthy.’

Still Alex is confused:

‘That I will not have,’ I said, ‘nor can understand at all. What you’ve been doing is to make me feel very very ill.’

The doctor presses on:

‘You felt ill this afternoon,’ he said, ‘because you’re getting better. When we’re healthy we respond to the presence of the hateful with fear and nausea. You’re becoming healthy, that’s all. You’ll be healthier still this time tomorrow.’

And so it goes on for two weeks. By this point, the doctors running Alex’s rehabilitation programme are ready to show off their results to a shadowy group of senior government official types. Alex is paraded on a stage in a spotlight where he’s soon joined by another man, hired by the researchers, who immediately starts bullying Alex, flicking his nose, tweaking his ears, stamping on his foot. Will Alex retaliate?

Now I knew that I’d have to be real skorry and get my cut-throat britva out before this horrible killing sickness whooshed up and turned like the joy of battle into feeling I was going to snuff it. But, O brothers, as my rooker reached for the britva in my inside carman I got this like picture in my mind’s glazzy of this insulting chelloveck howling for mercy with the red krovvy all streaming out of his rot, and hot after this picture the sickness and dryness and pains were rushing to overtake…

Rather than reacting with violence, Alex ends up cowering on the floor, and licks the sole of his tormenter’s shoe as an act of appeasement. Alex ‘s pathological — and psychopathic — proclivities are then put to another test:

And then the lights went down and the spotlights came on again, one on your poor and suffering Friend and Narrator, and into the other there like rolled or sidled the most lovely young devotchka you could ever hope in all your jeenzy, O my brothers, to viddy. That is to say, she had real horrorshow groodies all of which you could viddy, she having on platties which came down down down off her pletchoes. And her nogas were like Bog in His Heaven, and she walked like to make you groan in your keeshkas, and yet her litso was a sweet smiling young like innocent litso. She came up towards me with the light like it was the like light of heavenly grace and all that cal coming with her, and the first thing that flashed into my gulliver was that I would like to have her right down there on the floor with the old in-out real savage, but skorry as a shot cam the sickness, like a detective that had been watching round a corner and now followed to make his grahzny arrest.

Again, Alex is crippled by pain and sickness and cries out: ‘O most beautiful and beauteous of devotchkas, I throw like my heart at your feet for you to like trample all over.’ After uttering a few more such pleasantries, the sickness begins to subside, and the audience applauds.

The head of the Ludovico programme, Dr Brodsky, then comments on this perverse stage act: ‘Our subject is, you see, impelled towards the good by, paradoxically, being impelled towards evil. The intention to act violently is accompanied by strong feelings of physical distress. To counter these the subject has to switch to a diametrically opposed attitude.’

Not everyone is impressed, and the prison chaplain immediately objects to this method of ensuring civil behaviour: ‘He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.’

To which Dr Brodsky, the man heading up the Ludovico programme, replies, ‘These are subtleties. We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are concerned only with cutting down crime.’

These ‘subtleties’ are nothing of the sort; they make an enormous difference to the way we view Alex’s behaviour. It’s not that he’ now recognises that violence, rape and murder are themselves inherently immoral, and therefore does not want to indulge in them. Far from it: when he’s taunted by the bully, he still wants to slice him up; when he sees the devotchka, he still wants to have his way with her (in the film version, Alex actually tries to grope the semi-nude female in front of him). It’s just that he can’t go through with these actions, because he’s been conditioned to find them extremely physically distressing. He’s got a serious case of action aversion — even though he would like to achieve the outcomes of retaliatory violence and sexual gratification. And this has real moral significance, as the chaplain notes.

Now, the fact that we’re conditioned during childhood and beyond to find certain acts aversive to perform doesn’t mean that we’re all moral vacuums like Alex. It’s not like people typically want to hurt, rape and kill other people but simply don’t because of this conditioned aversion. However, the extreme case of Alex illustrates dramatically what pure action aversion would look like — and it’s clearly not the same as having a genuine moral concern with the outcomes of our actions. But we’re not Alex, and for us both sets of concerns no doubt play a part in keeping us from acting cruelly and callously.


About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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