Monday, January 27, 2014

More Roy

A couple of posts ago, I was thinking out loud about Roy Bedard's contention that people's fascination with violence and killing indicated that there was no internal block to killing inside one's own species. I disagree. Not about whether an internal block does or doesn't exist (more on that later) but about whether fantasy is any indication at all of willingness.

It was brain food, and, as usual, everyone responded to the question they heard.
But Lloyd's response got a few days of thinking.

Lloyd said...
Ill just leave this here.

Would you be willing to kill a goat at a slaughterhouse?

Would you be willing to kill a goat on a farm?

Would you be willing to kill a goat in the wild?

Would you be willing to kill someones pet cat/dog?

Would you be willing to kill a person?

The inhibition cant be completely about not killing your own species. Everyone ive ever asked with only one exception wont kill the pet, either.

I put down Lucky two years ago. He was our obsessively loving, epileptic, black cat. Kidney failure. We wanted his last days to be good, loving, with us. And when the pain got bad I put him down. What a euphemism. I continued to pet him and while he purred at the contact and sometimes mewled with pain I put the barrel of a .22 revolver under his throat, angled for the brainstem and killed him. It was over in an instant.

So I've been willing, but not eager.

But never ever once have I fantasized about putting down a pet. And there are people who daydream about hunting, but I don't recall, when living on the farm, ever fantasizing about butchering day. With the possible exception of when we culled chickens, because that was headshots only on moving targets with strict instructions not to shoot hens or the designated roosters... challenge.

And that's a thing, because K brought up fantasy and fairy tales as a kind of visualization, but in actual experience those are very different things in my head. You can daydream about hunting big game, and that's fantasy. When it was time to put down Lucky I rehearsed every step in my head because I didn't want any mistakes. Fully visualized, but not fantasy.

There are a couple of reasons people assume that there is a block against killing within your own species. First of all, Konrad Lorenz. It's been close to thirty years since I read "On Aggression" but it's pretty certain that most 'battles' within a species are ritualized and do minimal damage.  They can look fierce, but generally both bears walk away. But it's not just about not killing, because if a new male lion takes over a pride it will kill the cubs sired by the previous boss.

Then there's "On Killing." Be careful with Grossman's stuff. If you read his sources, they frequently don't say quite what made it into his books. And if you've ever actually fired a musket, there's a much more logical explanation for the multi-loads than reluctance to fire.

But some of the best evidence for the block comes from the people who freeze. If you debrief enough force encounters you will hear time and again, "I knew exactly what I needed to do, but for some reason, I couldn't make myself move." You will hear that from highly trained and motivated people. I have a much smaller number of debriefs for weapons, but sometimes you will get an experienced hand-to-hand fighter who doesn't go for the gun even when it is absolutely necessary.

So, question number one: Is it a block or a freeze? And is there really a difference?

Next part, and this goes to Erik's point about bell curves. There aren't a lot of things in humans where everybody is either one thing or the other. Almost everything exists on a continuum. And some people simply have less internal blocks to hurting or killing humans than others. Nature or nurture? What if it's all three?
I've heard through the grapevine that there's a guy doing research on a particular group of traits that appear in certain organizations. Evidently, people who gravitate to certain jobs and do well tend to have unusual bone and muscle density; faster healing rates; and respond to an adrenaline dump without a crash afterwards. (I'd like to know about flexibility, ETOH resistance and a few other traits I've noticed but...) That would be a case for a pretty strong genetic component.

Or it could be pure socialization. One of the most chilling things about Rwanda, if Hatzfeld is correct (he reports a prison of 7000 who participated in the genocide with less than a dozen mental health issues in the whole prison) is the lack of PTSD in the killers. Evidently, if you are raised with a strong tribal identity (where no one outside your tribe is a 'real' person) you can kill with all the emotional; baggage of a farmer slaughtering lambs.
Reverse that, and it means that people can be socialized so deeply that they can't make themselves do a 'wrong' thing even when they desperately need to do so to survive. And by wrong thing, I'm not necessarily talking something as extreme as killing, but people facing victimization who refuse to be rude. To slam a door in a strangers face or yell for help and make a scene.
And there's a subtle socialization, too. As much as everyone says how important it is to stand up for people and not let others be bullied and... I can tell you from personal experience that every time I have done so, I've been punished. Someone I cared about would make a point that doing so was stupid, or look at you differently. It was usually a boss. Like the bus driver fired for intervening in a domestic violence situation. That doesn't mean don't stop doing it, but you have to be very robust against peer pressure to keep standing up.

The third way, of course, is that somewhere in this is a mix. Some people are more resistant to peer pressure and socialization. Some respond to reward better than punishment and vise-versa. But I believe you could take one of those genetically predisposed to be comfortable with violence and raise them in an environment where it simple never worked and they would adapt. And I think a certain percentage of even the most dependent 'pleaser personality' genes raised in a dog-eat-dog environment would rise to the challenge. Because, above all, humans adapt. It's what we do.

To sum up, is there a block? For most normally socialized people, I think it's a good bet. How the definition of people is internalized, though, is a social process. And that changes those lines. And some people have more control over their internal states (not just emotion, but actual thought process) and they will tend to adapt faster, including breaking rules. And some people have never internalized society's rules but just follow them out of either convenience or courtesy.

But I still have no idea what to do with Roy's point about excessive fantasy.


Jim said...


I had to weigh whether I could and would kill someone's pet, after getting charged by a dog doing an entry on a search warrant. Fair disclosure: I didn't shoot the dog, recognized the excited/play behavior more than full aggression, but also spotted a potential glitch point. So I've mentally rehearsed it, too.

Not that it's something I ever want to do, though. Just that I recognized the need, and have (as best I can) prepared myself to do it.

pax said...

One of my extended family members was mauled by a dog, with ugly and life threatening consequences. With that in my gut memories, shooting a pet is not something I would likely glitch on in similar circumstances.

Also, about shooting cats. Outside city limits, that's how you keep ferals from destroying the natural balance. If you only ask city or suburban dwellers, they'll be horrified and repulsed -- and tell you they would never ever do such a thing, nor would any "good" person. But ask a country kid, and they'll nod, sigh and shrug with distaste. Just part of life.

Lloyd said...


"Also, about shooting cats. Outside city limits, that's how you keep ferals from destroying the natural balance. If you only ask city or suburban dwellers, they'll be horrified and repulsed -- and tell you they would never ever do such a thing, nor would any "good" person. But ask a country kid, and they'll nod, sigh and shrug with distaste. Just part of life."

Thats sort of where i got the idea from. I used to hunt wild cats with my dad, then you can get some disgusted looks if you tell someone who isnt aware of how normal that is where we are.

miriam said...

I think the "freeze" is related to survival instinct only, not to any kind of block.
To speak about any natural block in humans sounds like a joke if you just look around and check human history, wars, masacres...

Old Bull Lee said...

You made a similar comment about Grossman in the bibliography at the end of one of your books. Could you be more specific? Not calling you out, I've just been reevaluating his work after becoming more aware of the agenda he has taken on.

Charles James said...

Excessive fantasy is maybe about possibilities and may become an issue when one does not know how to separate fantasy from reality?

I sometimes think about things realizing that what I conceive is fantasy but sometimes it might migrate down toward a more realistic way - but I believe I know the difference.

Maybe it requires an ability to perceive and that it could become a hybrid that is actually realistic. Isn't it how we come up with improvements, i.e. perceive the fantasy then work to make it reality while allowing changes to reach that goal?

You and Marc, among others, give me things to think about be they fantasy or reality with emphasis on reality.

Or, so I believe .... does belief become a part of this equation too?

Josh Kruschke said...

Is excessive 'Fantasy' a problem in and of itself; does it cause the break from reality, or is it just a chemical imbalance in the brain, or maybe something else.

Anthropomorphism? You hear poeple say all the time things like, "My pet/s are like my kids." Or, "My pet/s are like family." There people out there willing to kill their fellow man to protect animals. There seems to be an implied hierarchy to the list that might/probably not true for everyone.

We are a complex organically grown individualy unique system. We like to think because we look a like and for the most part have the same parts that our brains must work exactly a like. We are in a constant state of flux.

I have 40 yrs of conditioning habits & knowldge that keeps getting more complicated. All I know for sure is I haven't killed anyone yet.

Josh Kruschke said...


Just had a thought? If there is a 'Block' could it fall under same mechanism is a phobia; even against killing even in self-defense?

Anonymous said...

I've not had as much experience as Rory with force encounters, but after working in a prison for 14 yrs, I've had a couple. No ambushes all were either planned cell moves or a couple of instant uses due to the inmate making it happen. One of the biggest things that has stood out to me is that there are a small group of us that approach violence as a necessity, not enjoying it, but not backing away from it. The majority of correctional employees avoid it, even when it's justified, even necessary. I'm amazed at how many of my fellow workers have never even given momentary thought to the subjects that are covered in this blog. From past experience on tactical teams it seems the people who have never conducted walk-thru's of situations are the ones who freeze. So a realistic visualization might help the brain with making decisions, and speeding thru the freeze.

RXian said...

Thoughts after an extended shift and dealing with uncharacteristically cold and wet weather:

For some, violence is simply a tool. It's nothing to get excited about (though after an encounter, team members can have some bonding over the event).

But for the fantasy crowd...I think it can break into two categories: 1. Building the Hero and 2. Building the Predator.

1. The Hero - every person is the hero of his own life's story. Violent fantasies are of extreme expressions of power, control, coolness.
A spectrum exists for this behavior. On one end, a guy wonders if he could rise to the challenge and pictures himself doing so. On the other, a person gets to be an ultra-badass spitting out cool one-liners while dropping tangos.

2. Building the Predator - see Anne Saltier's book "Predators". Many predators increase the scale of their violence along with an increase in obsessive violent fantasies.

RXian said...

I'm very interested in the study of the traits apparent in certain occupations. I think the nature/nurture argument is a somewhat false dichotomy. The two intertwine and overlap.

Google "Epigenetics"

Scott said...

Wonderful post Rory!

I think I'm an outlier, maybe it has something to do with growing up in San Francisco, but killing pets doesn't seem wrong to me, just inconvenient. That is particularly weird because I do love animals. So I think it may be even more complex.

Shouldn't we make a distinction between 1) systematically rehearsing scenarios in your head, 2) fantasy and 3) planning.

The tribal thing made me think that people have degrees of relatedness. Probably some cultures are making systematic distinctions based on some unique list. There was a book out a little while ago claiming we can only really have 250 people in our circle.

You have talked a lot about othering, but this made me thing that there are othering triggers. Perhaps there are other types of triggers that shift our ability to act.

For instance when I got a tour of Folsom Prison when we went out on the yard the warden explained that should any of the inmates move suddenly the guards would be firing live ammo, thus we were instructed to quickly lay down on the ground. It was a hot day, shirts were off, and about half of the inmates had Nazi tattoos. I remember thinking: how can I get them to move suddenly.

Unknown said...

Your post here reminded me of the end of the world/survival sociology exercise my children were given in Middle School...I chuckle even now over the appalled responses of their teachers and classmates to the solutions of survival we talked out with them. Lol...the scenario is the typical that you lack suuplies for all your people and they have different skills, some seen as necessary if the species is to survive, some not and all are at different ages for genetic usefulness.
One of my children, the son, more popular and a bit more concerned about what most think gave in to peer pressure with his teammates, even though he knew we had come up with a viable, if socially unacceptable scenario. The daughter, being ostracized, and more concerned with a solution and a possible thought outside the box, lead her party to taking the unpopular stance of selective cannibalism. Eating of parts of the humans there to protect the lives of as many as possible and the skills and reproductive capabilities of them all. Lol...of course the teacher was horrified. Strangely enough, my children weren't. Better cannibalism then death of any, better death and using resources than waste, better survival, and many of the kids who were there, when explained, saw the point. So the initial question above becomes not so much as what you are willing to do, but the motivation for you to be willing to do it. Is survival at the top of the actualization pyramid? We know that individual survival is not, so what is our motivation,hmm? In each of the scenarios of your original question there was always a motive that I, myself would be willing to kill. Many times it was food, survival and lack of waste, but there was also lack of pain and as the emotional connection to the living "animal" was closer the motivation became less about me an more about sparing them..anguish, pain, suffering, a worse death, or life. Isn,'t that what revolutions are mostly fought for? I won't say wars, because those are whole different motivations.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the link. Exciting subject that answers some other issues I've been concerned with.

Travis said...

There's actually strong evidence that the aversion to canibalism is rooted in a widespread prion disease in early human evolution. So the idea of eating people to protect the larger whole may not hold up

Travis said...

Although that's probably an extremely long term problem and might not be relevant to the discussion at hand.

Unknown said...

Passing thoughts:

"Would you be willing...?" -

Yes to all of them, not because I fantasize about them, but because I can visualize a situation in which is it necessary to do so in each example eventhough I've never done any of them. I think visualization can go a long way to breaking down that block, but the person has to either have experience or access to enough information on the subject matter (book or expert instructor, etc.) to be able to realistically walk themselves through it. But beyond that you still have to deal with the freezing, chemical dump, etc. parts that can also stall or prevent a reaction.

On the "experienced" folks freezing even when they realize what's going on and what to do. I don't have any real experience with that either, but I have a suspicion that if they really are thoroughly experienced. Whatever the most intense situation they've ever dealt with is going to set the standard for their expectations of future incidents, escpecially if they repeatedly encounter incidents of the same level. Then comes a less serious situation in which the average joe may quantify it as "I saw my life flash before my eyes, but to the more experienced it's completely predictable and therefore not a serious problem. They've basically become numb to it. Their logical brain observes and says "this is what's going on and this what I should do", but there's nothing scary about it because they know exactly (or think they do) what's going on. So there's no signal sent to the monkey brain (or sympathetic nervous system) that tells it to kick into high gear.

They don't feel an immediate need to respond.

Unknown said...

To further expand on the first paragraph.

The "block" may not be a genetically programmed monkey brain thing (or not entirely). It could be the simple fact that not enough is known about the situations described to understand what they need to do or how it will work or affect them.

A person may understand how to kill someone to defend themselves, but may not know anything about how to handle the situation afterwards and what might happen in court. Therefore they are afraid to act. Same for an officer in a shoot/no shoot situation. Without extensive experience or an indepth understanding of the situation they may fail to act out of fear of unseen repercussions that they wouldn't be able to survive.