27 January 2019

On the Subject of Murder


by R.T. Lawton

You've seen the large print headlines of your local newspaper. You've heard the news from your television commentators. Someone, or even several people, were murdered. Maybe the victim was shot down in the street. Or maybe multiple bodies were found in a house. Police are investigating. If you're lucky, these murders didn't happen to anyone you know. But, if you live in a large city, these type of local headlines seem to occur with a growing frequency. And, regardless of where you live, it appears that people are going crazy.

How the hell did we get to this point?

According to Dr. David Buss (author of The Murderer Next Door), an evolutionary psychologist, who examined over 400,000 FBI files of murderers, "the vast majority of murders are committed by people, who until the day they kill, seem pretty normal." Now that's a scary thought. The world was so much more tidy on my end when I could consider psychological misfits and stone cold street criminals as the prime candidates for being the guys that kill. So now, I have to watch out for Uncle Benny who takes umbrage at me kidding him for still wearing a bow tie after all these years? And what about Neighbor Jim who thinks my grandkids took a shortcut across the corner of his lawn? Am I destined to be doomed by Joe Everyman? What is pushing that normal everyday person over the edge and converting him into a killer?

I'm glad you asked. Conveniently for us, Dr. Buss, besides examining those 429,729 homicide files in the FBI system, also conducted a fantasy homicide study with 5,000 subjects, 175 of which were actual murderers. (Guess for these latter few, it wasn't just a fantasy.) Out of this total group, 91% of the men and 84% of the women had had at least one homicidal fantasy. These were vivid fantasies, often going into great detail. That's a lot of people thinking about murder and how to do it. No wonder bodies keep piling up in novels, and the mystery genre is doing so well.

Fortunately, most of the study participants got their homicide fantasies worked out in other ways to resolve whatever the original problem was. What seemed to separate the non-killers from the killers? Fear of being caught and sent to prison was a common response. However, when asked if they could commit the murder without being caught, most men thought the chances of them going forward would increase about fourfold. So, it appears that if you have caused someone to suffer mentally and/or socially and are still alive to read today's post, you may owe your life to the cost/benefit ratio of committing murder these days. Perhaps, television shows like CSI, where the investigators identify the criminals within an hour by forensic science, have had a positive influence to help keep down the murder statistics to some degree.

In the doctor's fantasy study, public humiliation was the leading factor for especially violent and detailed fantasies when disposing of the tormentor. Now, think of the teen bullied at school, or the guy who lost his job and blames his boss or coworkers. You've already seen those headlines. Seems like a certain amount of social cost and psychological pain to a person's pride and reputation can make for that person taking a bent towards revenge, where the next step may be a giant one called murder.

Under the right circumstances, it appears that most people are willing to kill. And, it's not all for pride and reputation. You've probably heard lots of people say that they would kill to protect their children or themselves from being killed. How about you? How far would you go to protect family and/or yourself? Depending upon the laws in your state, the act of killing another person under certain circumstances may not make you a murderer, but the act itself does make you a killer.

So now, let's go one step further. Have you had your own homicidal fantasies towards someone who has seriously tormented you? If so, then I hope those thoughts worked as some kind of therapy for you, and you could then put those fantasies out of your mind and get on with your life before doing something stupid.

Dr. Buss thinks we can maybe design environments that prevent the stimulation of those feelings which lead to murder. I don't know exactly what the doctor has in mind, but us showing a little kindness to those we cross paths with just might help some with the daily grind of living that we all get caught up in. A few kind words, a compliment here and there, a helping hand. See if we can make this a better world without so many dark headlines. Maybe we can save a few lives and not even know it.

Of course, authors can still murder people, as long as they only do it in books.

6 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Really interesting stuff, R.T. And I do think as writers we sublimate some maybe not so good desires in our writing. Base bad guys on people in our lives and then kill them off. We get the justice we want in way that's definitely better than going to jail.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Good, thoughtful posting. Yes, Paul, we writers kill our demons on paper.

Barb Goffman said...

Very good post, R.T. I've often said that it doesn't cost anything to be nice. And as this study shows, it might in fact pay dividends.

Don Coffin said...

This is a really interesting--and important, I think--post. I would have had no idea that the percentage of people who have fantasized about killing someone would be that high (and, I suppose, happy that this is another way in which I am atypical).

I think there's another study someone should do, which I would call the "If It Bleeds, It Leads" study. Watching local, and even national, news, I am surprised at the amount of coverage given to murders and even to non-fatal shootings. In the case of local news, this seems to come at the expense of coverage of local politics and government. At the national news lever--we typically watch ABC's news--I'm struck by the almost daily coverage of what seem to me to be purely local news, local murders. It's no wonder that a lot of people think national murder rates are high and rising.

And I wonder...if local and national TV coverage is expanding, what effect might that have on the current quite strong reluctance of "average" people to commit murder? Or am I worrying too much?

Leigh Lundin said...

Referring to both Don and RT, maybe shock-news about murder could be considered positive. It's an indication that we're not inured and complacent about death. After all this time exposed to living color, high-definition, 3-dimensional graphics, homicide still guts us.

One of our SleuthSayers members experienced senseless murder up close and very, very personal. Here is her story.

Eve Fisher said...

Everyone is capable of killing someone, given the right circumstances for that person. But, thanks be to God, most people never kill anyone at all. The trick is to keep it that way. So far, so good!