A Deadly Philosophy

Thursday, April 03, 2008

By Wray Herbert

Humans are the only species that systematically murders its own for ideological reasons. More than 50 million people were victims of mass murder in the 20th century, making it the deadliest century on record. That included the Ottoman Turks’ murder of 1.5 million Armenians, the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews, Mao’s murder of 30 million Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge’s destruction of 1.7 million Cambodians. The list goes on.*

Some of these deaths had to do with land and water and such, but most did not. Most were over philosophy. Why would this be? Philosophy is not threatening in any literal sense; it can’t maim or make you die, even when it’s very different from your view. Psychologists are very interested in this paradox: Why is philosophy—or worldview, or ideology—so threatening? Put another way, what are the cognitive and emotional underpinnings of mass murder and genocide?

One emerging theory suggests that genocide may make sense, at least on an emotional level. Think of it this way. Besides being the only animal to murder on principle, humans are also the only animal cognitively advanced enough to understand mortality. We all know we are going to die, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to prevent this. That fact should be utterly terrifying, so terrifying that we should be paralyzed by fear and trembling.

But we’re not. We get up every morning, dress and groom ourselves, go to work, play with the kids, and so forth. How do we manage this? Well, one way we manage is by constructing meaning, and we do that by imagining a meaningful world. That’s called philosophy—or religion, or whatever. Humans are meaning-making creatures.

The problem occurs when our carefully constructed philosophy is threatened. And the greatest threat to a belief system is, well, an alternative belief system. To put it bluntly, your unfamiliar worldview makes me keenly aware of my mortality; it threatens my very existence. So why shouldn’t I wish you dead? Philosophy is personal.

Scientists have actually been studying this entanglement of personal mortality and cultural hatred in the lab, with some interesting results. Here’s a recent experiment by Joseph Hayes and his colleagues at the University of Alberta, Canada. These psychologists wanted to explore whether a philosophical threat could indeed conjure up thoughts of death, and further whether those thoughts might be quelled by actual annihilation of the philosophical “enemy.” To explore this, they recruited devout Christians for an experiment. They had these Christians read an actual news story about the “Muslimization of Nazareth”: The article described how Jesus’s birthplace had become largely a Muslim city, and how the dominant (and militant) Muslim population was marginalizing the Christians who remained.

The idea was that this unwelcome news about a holy Christian landmark would threaten the Christian readers’ worldview—and in turn their personal security. And indeed it appears it did. After they had read about Nazareth, they all took a psychological test that gauges preoccupation with thoughts of death and dying. As reported in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who had read the report were much more morbid in their imagery than those who had not. They were also much more derogatory toward Muslims than were Christians who had not read the news.

So that’s pretty unsettling in itself. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Hayes and his colleagues then told half of the participants another bit of news, only in this case it was made up. They told them that an airplane had crashed on its way to Nazareth, killing all 117 devout Muslims aboard. When they crunched the data, they found that those who had “witnessed” the annihilation of the Muslims were significantly less morbid in their thinking and significantly less derogatory toward Muslims. Put another way, knowing of the violent death of the Muslims effectively undid the perceived threat to the Christians’ philosophy and well-being. It restored meaning and security to their lives.

Isn't it possible that the plane crash simply made the Christians more sympathetic toward the Muslims, at least temporarily? The psychologists actually considered and rejected this idea, based on a surprising finding. The Christians who read about Nazareth became increasingly negative not only toward Muslims, but also toward Buddhists and Hindus and atheists. That is, they became antagonistic toward any worldview that questioned the absolute validity of Christianity. What's more, those who read the fabricated story about the plane crash were less disparaging of all these worldviews. Since no Hindus or Buddhists or atheists perished in the crash, there would be no reason for the Christians to feel sympathy toward these people.

So our brain fights death with death. It reasons that if an enemy dies, his philosophy must have been perverse or weak or just plain wrong, and thus no real threat to our superior worldview—nor to our life and limb. It’s a powerful psychological defense. In real life, of course, it just raises the ante. It’s tit for tat, and the new century starts counting its genocide victims.

*For a thorough examination of 20th century genocide, see Lewis Simons’s “Genocide and the Science of Proof” in the January 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

For more insights into human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:15 PM


At 5:33 PM , Blogger Shannon said...

I find this and all of your posts intriguing (you're probably my favorite blogger I have on my reader and wish you posted more)

However, I have a question about your conclusion.

"Put another way, knowing of the violent death of the Muslims effectively undid the perceived threat to the Christians’ philosophy and well-being. It restored meaning and security to their lives."

Do you think that instead the subjects felt sympathy for the Muslims that died (in an accident) and therefore felt guilty about wishing them ill in the first place? It grounded them in a way.

I can see how your suggestion might be plausible but it seems too reactionary and assumes that most people (although it is difficult to argue sometimes) are crude and petty.

At 10:55 PM , Blogger Greg said...

Really fascinating, Wray! Another good book that explores some of these questions is "Humanity, by Jonathan Glover.

At 9:16 AM , Blogger Wray said...

Shannon makes a very good point, which the psychologists do address in their paper. I have inserted a paragraph to clarify this.

At 11:13 AM , Blogger Shannon said...

wow, OK. I rescind my statement about people not being crude and petty.

At 2:22 AM , Blogger goldenthree said...

I find this and all of your posts intriguing (you're probably my favorite blogger I have on my reader and wish you posted more)
Definitely agree with this statement.

I think your explanation of worldview threat seems a little abstract for such a natural emotional reaction.
This seems to me like it might have a more tribal basis. Christians probably identify as a member of a the Christian "tribe". I wonder if they could replicate these results with a non-ideologically based group. Like a highschool, or neighborhood.

At 8:08 AM , Blogger Devamitta said...

To me, all of this points to the validity of the teachings of the Buddha, who (so it seems to me) tried to get people to get beyond the clinging to beliefs from whence false views come. Attachment to views is one of the hurdles someone on the buddhist path is working to overcome, that along with the idea of a permanent self operating in the world that needs to be protected. The more I look into what he taught, the more I am coming to realize that he really was not a religious leader at all. He seems to have been more of a realist who looked at what is actually going on with our interactions in the world through our senses and how much of what we "believe" about most of it is patently based upon a false reading of the information coming in. Funny to me that over 2500 years ago someone had the ability to strip away all the errant take on our existence and that now much of soience is corroborating, even if indirectly, in what he hit upon long ago.

At 4:10 PM , Blogger Joel said...

I love the blog, and whether I agree or not or in fact deserve the right to disagree, I enjoy the writing.


There is plenty of reason to believe that people don't commit mass murder for ideology at all, that at some level there is only the same old behavior that was always there. We've seen civilizations of every variety, of every level of sophistication, and we've seen a flat history of genocide, of primate raiding parties, and your basic average killing of the "others." The only thing that changes is the justification. Oh, and the scale of the destruction, which has gone up with populations.

Look at our current political climate and notice that the war hawks have a bag full of justifications for war. I believe they believe them or want to believe them, that at the bottom of the reasons is a drive. If anything, it seems like ideology would give pause to war or genocide, not inflame it, but who knows?

Everything in the universe is driven by processes we can't see. The ant doesn't know why he goes to war; he just does it. Why is kind of a bogus question. Why would we be any different?

At 6:26 AM , Blogger Scott Hughes said...

That's a very interesting blog post. I hadn't thought of it before, but I can see how questioning one's philosophy and religion can let out their fear of death because the philosophy and religion is what they use to overcome and suppress the fear of death. I can't help but note the unfortunate irony of the fear of death leading to ideological-caused murder.

The scientific experiments are also interesting. I hope more are conducting about this topic.

Wray Herbert, I also want to invite you to join Philosophy Forums.

At 8:31 PM , Blogger Moeen H. said...


While these studies are indeed depressing, the plus side is that by determining how people get themselves into trouble we can prevent the next generation from falling into the same trap. By giving people an understanding of how indoctrination into an ideology works and the problems it can create, we can stop people in the future from becoming indoctrinated.

After all, it is by learning more about ourselves that we can become better people.