“I think I’ll turn this thing around. See how you like sleeping carefully.”

Posted by Sappho on May 24th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary, Peace Testimony

While searching the web for something entirely different, I ran across a reference to the research of David Buss, the author of The Murderer Next Door. David Buss surveyed first his students and then others about their homicidal fantasies, and then wrote that what he had found showed how we are evolved to kill. Let’s hear first from someone skeptical of this research, reacting to a column by David Brooks which takes it at face value.

… Buss “asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay,” Brooks said. “He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies.”

I too was astonished to learn that so many men and women have had such fantasies—perhaps because I’ve never had one myself, although I could be repressing it.

As Steve Bogira, the critic, describes the question being answered in this survey, I find I’m not at all surprised that the number is that high.

The survey that participants were given in that study had this introduction:

“Research has shown that many normal people occasionally have thoughts about homicide. We think that some situations more than others cause people to think about killing someone else. This survey was designed to examine your thoughts about these situations.”

After the respondents were asked their age and sex, the next question said:

“Think carefully about all of the experiences in your life for a few moments . . . Have you ever thought about killing someone else, even for just a moment?”

Duntley said 91 percent of the men and 76 percent of the women reported “at least one vivid, memorable homicidal thought.”

I wonder what percent would have reported a “memorable homicidal thought” had the respondents been asked about them without the priming.

Oh, forget the priming. Yes, I think it probably increased the number of “yes” answers, but look at the question.

“Think carefully about all of the experiences in your life for a few moments . . . Have you ever thought about killing someone else, even for just a moment?”

Ever, even for a moment, in your entire life. Maybe I’m just a person much more primed for violence than Steve Borgira, but I’d answer “yes” to that question in a moment, without any priming. Have I ever, even for a moment, thought about killing someone? Sure. Not long after I had graduated from college, the man I loved was run over by a drunk driver, and yes, for a moment, on more than one occasion, I thought that I would like to kill that drunk driver. It wasn’t a particularly admirable thought; I was already a Quaker, and the man who had died was a pacifist who would never have wanted me to kill the person who killed him, in revenge, even if the killing had been far more deliberate and premeditated than the acts of the actual drunk driver who hit his bicycle. And obviously I never seriously considered doing the thing. I didn’t even plot it out as a fantasy in any detail, just sang a lot of angry songs. But it would surprise me if that kind of thought is rare, if you’re asking a question set to pick up even fleeting thoughts.

Have you ever, at any time in your life, thought of killing someone? Well, that might include the person who violently raped a member of your family. It might include whether, even for a moment, right after 9/11 when we learned who was responsible, you might have thought that you personally would like to cut off Osama bin Laden’s head. Or whether, as a boy at a time when your country was at war, you ever imagined joining the army and heroically fighting the bad guys and shooting some of them dead. Whether, when hearing of a violent crime in your neighborhood, you ever pictured keeping a gun by your bed with which you could shoot that predator if he ever came to threaten your home and family. I’d imagine a lot of people have at least briefly imagined killing someone, and, even more often, at least briefly imagined doing someone physical violence. (I can clearly remember, as a teenager, once I was well past the age at which I’d actually get into fights, nevertheless imagining myself going over and beating up a neighbor boy, actually one bigger than myself, whom I had heard had bullied younger children and forced them to eat snow.) Even pacifists aren’t pacifist because we can’t imagine doing someone harm.

No, the surprise is in what Buss describes as provoking the homicidal fantasies.

“The key differences between the sexes is not so much in having homicidal fantasies about the mates who have left them but, rather, in the likelihood of acting on them,” Buss said. “Among the men who entertained thoughts of murdering their mates, 54 percent were triggered by the woman ending the relationship.

Wait, is he actually saying that large numbers of otherwise normal men have thought about killing women who broke up with them? That seems freaky and weird to me. Sure, I’ve been really pissed off at people who broke up with me, and I’ve fantasized about doing things that I was too well-behaved to do. But that would be, oh, something like fantasizing about telling my ex how small his dick was (whether or not it was). It would be fantasizing coming up with exactly the words that would cut him down to size and make him feel less of a man. Because, seriously, who would want to kill over romantic rejection? Who even wants to do bodily injury over romantic rejection? Oh, I know some people do, and I even remember a lawyer friend telling me that when women approach him for help with a divorce he checks on whether there are guns in the house, and suggests securing them first. But I always figured, even in fantasy, that “contemplate killing your ex” would be very much a minority thing.

And it may be. It’s hard for me to tell, from the limited descriptions of the research that I can find on the net, just what is going on. 91% of men, it’s said, answered yes when asked if they had ever, however briefly, thought of killing someone. And of those who had thought of killing their mates, 54% thought of doing so when the women broke up with them. But how many of those 91% answering yes thought of killing their mates? Doesn’t that 91% of all men responding include anyone at all whose homicidal fantasy, however brief, concerned someone who had actually done someone physical harm? Because I would have expected that, for every person who actually kills someone, there would be multiple people who at least briefly fantasized about killing that particular killer.

Buss does say that there’s a difference between the sexes here.

“Whereas men kill mates who have dumped them,” he said, “women kill mates who sequester, abuse and threaten them so heavily that they see killing as the only way out.

But what’s not made clear is just what kind of difference between the sexes we’re talking about. Are we talking about a world in which most men fantasize about murder when they go through a rough break up, while most women fantasize about murder because they’ve been abused and threatened. Even figuring that only a tiny minority of people are acting on their fantasies, that sounds like a way more violent world than the one I thought I lived in. Or are we talking about a world in which most people at least briefly think about killing someone, many of those brief thoughts concern people who have committed actual crimes that injure people (even if, as in my case of thinking that I’d like to kill the drunk driver, not crimes that we actually should punish with the death penalty), and, specifically of the subset of people who had at least briefly thought about killing their mates, men had such thoughts in response to being dumped and women had such thoughts in response to being battered?

54% might not be that large a number, if not that many men in this survey actually thought of killing their mates, and most of the 91% were having cop fantasies.

3 Responses to ““I think I’ll turn this thing around. See how you like sleeping carefully.””

  1. Marian Neudel Says:

    I have long believed that everybody is capable of some sort of murder of some sort of person in some set of circumstances, and that the vast majority of us are lucky enough never to encounter that person/set of circumstances. Most of us, that is, never “meet our murder.” In some subcultures and neighborhoods, OTOH, life abounds with people and circumstances conducive to murder by many of the other people who happen to hang out there. Like, alas, the South and West Sides of Chicago.

  2. Marian Neudel Says:

    Re: sleeping carefully (totally unrelated to present topic) I sleep carefully because my cat has been unwell lately, and if I roll over carelessly while she is, as usual, sleeping next to me, and disturb her, she is likely to growl.

  3. Sappho Says:

    Have you ever read The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum? There’s a point in the book where her employer, a defense attorney for whom she works as a housekeeper, gets asked by some reporter if Katharina would be capable of some serious crime (I forget exactly how the question was phrased), and the man replies, but of course, anyone would be capable of that under the right circumstances. And then, only after that, expresses surprise that he’s being asked that question about Katharina. And of course (the novel being about how Katharina is smeared by the yellow press), the quote published simply says that absolutely Katharina would be capable of such a thing.

    Yeah, most of us are lucky enough to never “meet our murder.” If we did, we’d at least find it considerably more difficult to refrain than we do in good circumstances.

    It helps to grow up in a time and place where staying nonviolent actually looks safer than being prepared at any turn for violence.