A history of killing

The psychology of murder is the topic of a fantastic edition of ABC Radio’s All in the Mind that looks at the changing motivations behind the most serious of crimes.

You might think that the reasons for committing murder have been relatively constant across time, even if the perceived necessity has been been changed by modern society.

But it turns out that the social psychology of murder has changed radically in the last 500 years.

Honour and shame are no longer considered to be the most important psychological factors in determining social standing and murder is no longer considered an acceptable way of redressing the balance.

Pieter Spierenburg: Basically it means that honour moves away from being based on the body, being tied to the body, being based on preparedness to defend yourself and your dependants, and that you get other sources of honour that for example economic success or that even in a later period what they called sexual purity is a source of honour, being a good husband, a good head of the family, things that people take pride in and that becomes a source of honour— a man can be honourable without being violent…

James Gilligan: The more people have a capacity for feelings of guilt and feelings of remorse after hurting other people, the less likely they are to kill others. I think in the history of Europe what one can see is a gradual increase in moral development from the shame / honour code to the guilt / innocence code.

The programme not only tracks the history of murder and its motivations but looks at this is dealt with in modern day prison systems and violence prevention programmes. A fascinating look at a violent act.

Link to All in the Mind on ‘Murder in mind’.

Three Christs return and are waiting to be won

The New York Review of Books has just reprinted the classic book ‘The Three Christs of Ypsilanti’ documenting psychologist Milton Rokeach’s offbeat experiment where he brought three delusional Christs together in the same psychiatric hospital.

I wrote about the astounding but somewhat ethically dubious study in a recent article for Slate if you want some background and I’m pleased to see a new edition being printed, as even the out-of-print second edition was being sold for hundred of dollars.

The publishers have kindly offered a copy of the book as a prize, sent anywhere in the world, so we thought we’d run a quick competition (please note, although I’m quoted on the publishers’ page for the book, I’m not financially involved in any way).

Anyway, the competition is this:

You’re working in a psychiatric hospital and suddenly everyone thinks you’re a patient. How would you convince them you’re really a psychiatrist?

Leave an answer in the comments, I’ll pick the best one by the end of the week and the prize will be sent to you, anywhere in the world.

COMPETITION CLOSED: Thanks for all your wonderful entries. The winner has been announced although you’re welcome to continue to add your own fantastic ideas below if you’d like to join the fun.


Link to publishers page for The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.

Time flies when you’re having fun

The New Yorker has a fantastic profile of neuroscientist David Eagleman that captures both his playful approach to science and his intriguing work on how we perceive time.

Eagleman is one of the most engaging thinkers in neuroscience – equally at home tackling fascinating areas of cognitive science and writing playful books about the afterlife.

The New Yorker article manages to both his wide ranging enthusiasm and the science behind his work into offbeat but essential brain functions.

Time isn’t like the other senses, Eagleman says. Sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are relatively easy to isolate in the brain. They have discrete functions that rarely overlap: it’s hard to describe the taste of a sound, the color of a smell, or the scent of a feeling. (Unless, of course, you have synesthesia—another of Eagleman’s obsessions.) But a sense of time is threaded through everything we perceive. It’s there in the length of a song, the persistence of a scent, the flash of a light bulb. “There’s always an impulse toward phrenology in neuroscience—toward saying, ‘Here is the spot where it’s happening,’ ” Eagleman told me. “But the interesting thing about time is that there is no spot. It’s a distributed property. It’s metasensory; it rides on top of all the others.”

An entertaining article that tackles everything from time stretch during life threatening incidents to a study on drummers with Brian Eno. Great fun and throught-provoking.

Link to New Yorker profile of David Eagleman.

Arresting suicide by cop

Suicide by cop‘ is a fairly recent concept that has come to light after cases of people who seemingly provoked police shootings in an attempt to end their own lives.

Miller-McCune magazine has an excellent article on how the police are increasingly recognising this as a problem and are working towards diverting these situations to avoid a lethal outcome.

Although some cases are clear-cut, exact figures are hard to come by, not least because it often involves inferring the intentions of someone who has just been killed.

While some say the problem is vastly under-recognised, others are concerned that it could be used as an excuse for questionable shootings by saying the subject was suicidal.

However, the Miller-McCune article takes a comprehensive look at what we know about ‘suicide by cop’ and how innovative new programmes are being put-in-place to try and pick up cases and divert them to mental health services.

Most people who have studied the phenomenon will tell you that, typically, suicide-by-cop scenarios fall into two categories: the “fleeing felon” who tries to escape police and, once cornered, decides he’s going to go out in a blaze of glory; and the “emotionally disturbed person,” who, like Seth, is looking for a way out of the pain of either mental illness or some kind of life failure.

The police encounter “emotionally disturbed persons” so regularly that, in cop lingo, they are called “EDPs.” Whether it’s a domestic call (a man with a history of depression has become violent because his ex won’t take him back), a workplace incident (an employee locks herself in a bathroom with a letter opener after being let go), or a schizophrenic homeless man screaming obscenities at shoppers at the local Dollar Store, police are often the first responders to problems involving our nation’s mentally ill. Situations involving the emotionally disturbed are volatile and can quickly spiral out of control, but most American police officers receive little specialized training on dealing with them.

The author of the piece, crime journalist Julia Dahl, and the mother of a man who tried to kill himself by provoking the police were interviewed recently on NPR Radio’s Here and Now.

Unfortunately, I’m on a low-bandwidth 1990s-style internet connection so can’t listen to it very easily, although it looks like a good complement to the article.

Link to Miller-McCune article ‘How to Stop Suicide by Cop’.
Link to ‘suicide by cop’ interview on NPR radio.

The exceptional mourning of twins

I’ve just found an amazing article that looks at how the death of twins is mourned in cultures around the world.

The journal Twin Research and Human Genetics is usually dedicated to the science of twin studies – a key method for understanding the role of genetics and the environment on the development of human traits.

In 2002 they had a special issue that took a very different look at the subject – examining grief and mourning related to twins.

One of the articles is a stunning look at the anthropology of twin death, exploring the diverse and intriguing beliefs and practices concerning twin death.

This is a short excerpt on funeral practices (I’ve removed references removed for ease of reading) although I could have selected almost any part of the fascinating article:

Mythical attributes, such as animal kinship, inevitably influence twin funerary rites. The Ga (west Africa) presume twins have the wild bushcow’s spirit, and living twins rush about like wild cows when a twin dies. The Nootka and Bella Coola (NW North America) believed salmon and twins had close affinity. The Nootka did not bury a dead twin infant, but laid it on swampy ground. A twin who died after infancy was not interred like a singleton, but placed in a box in a riverside tree until the current swept away tree and box together.

Nuer (NE Africa) twin infants’ bodies were placed in trees due to their purported kinship with birds. Both birds and twins were children of God, gaat kwoth, spirits who dwell in air and clouds. A stillborn twin was left in a reed basket in a tree fork and birds of prey supposedly left them intact. Adult Nuer twins weren’t buried, but were laid on a platform with no ceremonies. Twins did not attend others’ funerals.

The Gilyak (Sakhalin Island, Far east) cremated singletons, but burial was mandated for a twin or his parents. Twins, as offspring of the mountain god, were dressed in white and seated Turkish style in a specially built house surrounded with shavings.

The article is completely open-access and, although an academic paper, is quite readable and completely engrossing.

Link to article entry (click through for full text PDF)

The Rough Guide to Psychology

Friend of mindhacks.com and contributor to the original Mind Hacks book, Christian Jarrett has written the “The Rough Guide to Psychology“, published this month, and a right rip roaring read it is too. It’s a whistle-stop tour through all aspects of the science of mind and behaviour, which reveals just how diverse and rich the field of psychology is. From visual perception to intelligence testing, sport psychology and gender differences to developmental disorders – Christian is the consummate guide, introducing the scientific essentials, giving the history of psychological research and highlighting links to the everyday world of our own experiences. The reader gets the benefits of Christian’s unique skills – he’s a fully trained research scientist but also has the jackdaw curiosity of the science journalist, honed by the experience of writing for the BPS Psychologist magazine and Research Digest.

It isn’t possible to download knowledge in the way Keanu does in the Matrix (“I know kung-fu“), but reading the Rough Guide to Psychology feels like the next best thing. Wonderful breadth, impressive depth and fun throughout – the next time someone asks me for an introduction to Psychology I’ll give them this book.

How to jail the innocent

The Innocence Project has used DNA technology to overturn hundreds of wrongful convictions. Slate has an excellent two part series on the two main reasons why these people were falsely jailed: eyewitness misidentifications and false confessions.

The series is by law professor Brandon Garrett who has analysed the first overturned 250 cases to examine the psychology behind distorted justice.

This is from the piece onthe biases that in line-ups that have sent people down for long-stretches after being falsely identified:

Where did this false certainty come from? The trial records I looked at suggest that unsound and suggestive police identification procedures played a large and troubling role. Police used unnecessary show-ups, where they presented the eyewitness with just the defendant. Or stacked lineups to make the defendant stand out.

Or offered suggestive remarks, telling the eyewitness whom to identify or to expect a suspect in a lineup. Or confirmed the witness’s choice as the right one. Even well-intended, encouraging remarks, like “good job, you picked the guy,” can have a dramatic effect on eyewitness memory, as psychologists have shown.

Indeed, more than one-third of the cases I looked at involved multiple eyewitnesses, as many as three or four or five eyewitnesses who all somehow misidentified the same innocent person. Further, almost half of the eyewitness identifications were cross-racial. Psychologists have long shown how eyewitnesses have greater difficulty identifying persons of another race.

Both pieces tackles how biases have warped specific high profile cases, sometimes leading to decades of false imprisonment.

Link to Slate piece on eyewitness misidentifications (via @psyDoctor8)
Link to Slate piece on false confessions.