Department of Human Behavior: Terrorism and Morality

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Shankar Vedantam, and Fiery Cushman, from Harvard's Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, were online Monday, Dec. 8 at Noon ET to discuss Monday's Department of Human Behavior column, which will focus on new research about moral reasoning when dealing with terrorism.

Shankar writes in today's column: In recent years, a large number of psychological experiments have found that when confronted by tragedy, people fall back on certain mental rules of thumb, or heuristics, to guide their moral reasoning. When a tragedy occurs, we instantly ask who or what caused it. When we find a human hand behind the tragedy -- such as terrorists, in the case of the Mumbai attacks -- something clicks in our minds that makes the tragedy seem worse than if it had been caused by an act of nature, disease or even human apathy.

A transcript follows.


Shankar Vedantam: Welcome to the chat. We are here to discuss how people evaluate moral dilemmas, and why it is certain situations -- mass disasters and terrorism in particular -- can cause us to under-react or over-react to crises.

I am pleased to be joined by Fiery Cushman from Harvard University's Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, who has conducted several fascinating experiments into how the different brain systems we have sometimes lead us into paradoxes and contradictions.

Please share any thoughts or comments about my column today. Do you have a moral dilemma you encountered recently that you would like the group to address?


Shankar Vedantam: Fiery, if I might start us off with a quick question, you and I talked about some of the tension that exists between the two systems we have in our minds to evaluate moral problems. Can you talk briefly about how these systems come into conflict from time to time, perhaps with an example of a drunk driver who gets in an accident?

Fiery Cushman: Sure - and let me also say thanks for inviting me here, it's a real pleasure.

Imagine two friends who share some beers at a bar and then each drive home. One of them falls asleep at the wheel and runs into some bushes in his neighbor's front yard. In my home state of Massachusetts, he could expect to get about a $250 fine for DUI. But the other one falls asleep at the wheel and hits a little girl playing in her front lawn, killing her. In Massachusetts, he would get between 2 1/2 and 15 years in prison.

Philosophers and legal scholars have been troubled by cases like this, and it's easy to see why. On the one hand, it seems crazy that two people who engage in identical behavior would be punished in such radically different ways. Sure enough, on average the people I've tested say that both people behaved equally wrongfully. On the other hand, it doesn't seem right to send the bush-hitter to prison for years, or to let the girl-killer off with a light fine. And, sure enough, people I've tested tend to say that these two people should receive different amounts of punishment.

So the lesson here is that we seem to make different kinds of moral judgments in systematically different ways -- judgments about "wrongness" that depend on your intentions, and judgments of "punishment" that also depend on accidental outcomes. When we look at those different types of judgments side-by-side, it can lead to a state of puzzlement: How can these different perspectives both be right?


Washington, D.C.: How many people have been shot in the last 12 months in Washington? (It's a pretty big number.) But the killers in Mumbai seen as being horrendously inhuman, hideously cruel, and despicable, while the DC killers are just another aspect of being black, urban, and poor.

The people who died in DC are also black and poor, but the dead in Mumbai tended to be rich and privileged. How much do you think that factors into the shock and outrage?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Washington. That's an interesting and heartfelt question. Why do some victims matter more to us than others? In this case, I have to say I am unconvinced the discrepancy in coverage has to do with matters of race or class. Much more likely, I think, is that terrorist attacks are seen as unusual and newsworthy in ways that "mundane" crime is not. Of course, that makes no sense from the point of view of the victims, but as I said in my column today, there are many examples showing people have more compassion and interest in certain tragedies than in others. I also wonder how much the difference might be explained by the motive of the wrongdoers -- with crime, people have the sense that there is a motive such as money or jealousy. That doesn't excuse the act, but it does feel a little more comprehensible than terrorism, where the killers could not care less who their victims are. Fiery, your thoughts?

Fiery Cushman: I think the answers Shankar proposed are both very good ones. Again and again, psychologists have found that people respond more to new, unusual events to familiar ones -- from infancy to adulthood, and from the firing of individual neurons to much "higher level" psychological responses. So, I suspect that "novelty", so to speak, is a big factor here.


Princeton, N.J.: I'm a mathematician and I like to get the definitions straight first. I define "terrorism" as the indiscriminate killing of civilians so as to impose your will upon them. Examples - When Tammerlane entered a country, he killed all the people (and their dogs) and piled the skulls in front of the ruin of their city. The Nazi flattening of Rotterdam. The fire bombing of Dresden and Tokyo. The bombing of the population centers of London. The atomic bombing in Japan.

I am not drawing any conclusion about the morality of the acts. I just want to know what you're talking about.

Shankar Vedantam: People have been arguing over a proper definition of terrorism for a long time. I am not sure that conversation is entirely germane here -- I doubt anyone disagrees that the attacks in Mumbai were an act of terrorism -- but I would be happy to tell you my definition.

Terrorism is violence that is designed to intimidate or influence the behavior of people who are not the direct victims of the attack. The victims of terrorism, unlike the victims of crime or war, are chosen indiscriminately because the real target of the terrorists is the people who are watching. I think it was Brian Jenkins who said way back in the 70s that "Terrorism is theater." I subscribe to that definition.


Gaithersburg, Md.: It is disturbing to come to grips with the notion that young kids between the ages of 19 and 23 are capable of such cold blooded violence. I am referring to the recent Mumbai blast. What makes these young adults choose this way of life?

Fiery Cushman: Great question. Much of the recent work in moral psychology has focused on how we make moral judgments of wrongdoers as third parties, rather than why people act wrongfully in the first place. In part, that's because it's much easier to study the first issue than the second!

But the research that we do have suggests that two factors both contribute to anti-social behavior. On the one hand, certain environments and circumstances lead 'ordinary' people to commit terrible acts. On the other hand, there seem to be certain people who lack some of the psychological mechanisms that prevent them from doing terrible acts even in 'ordinary' circumstances. Right now, I think it's an open question which of those factors plays a greater role in terrorist acts, or whether both are necessary.

Shankar Vedantam: I am going to tentatively toss out an idea -- tentatively because I am not sure it entirely fits this issue. Psychologists often talk about something called the Fundamental Attrbution Error: When I do something bad, I feel it is because of the situation, but when you do something bad, I tend to think it is because you are a bad person. Do you think this applies to how we see the terrorists and how they may see themselves? I stand wide open to correction ...


Shankar Vedantam: Fiery, I ran out of room in the piece today before I could get to your experiment with the athletes. You asked volunteers to think of a situation where an athlete tries to kill a rival ahead of a race. In some cases, the athelete succeeds, in others he fails, and in some cases the athlete fails to kill his rival but the rival dies anyway because of something unrelated. Can you tell us a little about people's moral reactions to these scenarios?

Fiery Cushman: Sure. The point of this experiment was to see whether information about bad intentions and bad outcomes can actually compete against each other in determining our moral judgments. Here's how it worked.

In the "No harm" case, a runner tries to kill his rival by sprinkling poppy seeds on his rival's salad. He believes the rival is allergic to poppy seeds, but in fact the rival is allergic to hazelnuts. So, the rival escapes unharmed.

In the "Harm" case, everything is exactly the same, except that the salad happens to be made by the chef with hazelnuts. So, the runner's poppy-seed-attempt fails, but the rival ends up dead because of the chef's recipe.

Here's the funny finding: people are twice as likely to let the runner off with no punishment in the "Harm" case, compared to the "No harm" case. What's going on? It looks like the death of the rival immediately cases people to look for the causally responsible party. In the Harm case, that's the chef. Thus, they fail to consider the runner's malicious intentions, and they let him off the hook. In the "No harm" case, however, there is no harm. Thus, the search for casual responsibility does not distract people from the runner's malicious intentions -- and thus, they are less likely to let him off the hook.


Arlington, Va.: I can relate on a totally different topic. I was noting how upset I was that a loved one deliberately thew out something. Ironically, it was pointed out that had it been destroyed by fire, I would have accepted that better. The fact there was a human hand behind its destruction is precisely what upsets me. Is this indeed something similar?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question, Arlington. I think your story is a really beautiful example of what the reseach illustrates. We are much more upset when we see a human hand behind something that hurts us rather than an impersonal force. When I put myself in your shoes, I feel exactly the same way. I'll turn it over to Fiery to see if he can explain our intuitions to us.

Fiery Cushman: That is a very nice example, thanks for sharing it. Part of what might be occuring in case like this is that we tend to get more upset about events that we can control. By getting upset at your loved one, you have the chance to control his or her future behavior: next time, they will be more careful! But in the case of the fire, you are probably imagining an event outside of your control. No point getting upset -- there isn't much you can do to prevent fires.

Here's a critical test: how would you feel if the fire *was* under your control? Imagine that you left a candle burning next to the draperies. In that case, I suspect you'd feel just as upset with yourself as you did with your loved one.


Washington, DC killers vs Mumbai killers: A killer in D.C. kills one or two, the killers in Mumbai shot/killed about 40 each. I'd say the Mumbai killers are a lot more despicable.

Shankar Vedantam: Here's another response to the Mumbai terrorism versus DC crime question.

This point is well made, but what if you are comparing the number of people who die as a result of crime over some period of time -- say a year -- with terrorism? It's like the difference between deaths in car accidents and deaths in airplane crashes. Many more people die on the road, but airliner crashes are the ones that make the front page.


Rockville, Md.: In assessing moral culpability, how can we know whether someone who intends a violent act would have actually performed it?

Fiery Cushman: That's a very important insight, which the Anglo-American legal system gives the name of "Actus Reus". In brief, no crime has occurred unless the perpetrator has gotten to the point of committing a bad act. This is one of the ways that our legal system avoids punishing people for "thought crimes", so to speak.

But it's important to note that even after a bad act has occurred, there can still be a mismatch between intentions and outcomes. As Shankar pointed out in his column, the 1993 attempt against the World Trade Center and the 2001 attempt against the World Trade Center were both actions with identical harmful intentions, but very different outcomes.

Shankar Vedantam: The last few years have shown many people why the idea of preemptive action is problematic -- in short, we are fallible, and can sometimes go after the wrong targets.

But terrorism does pose a difficult conundrum, in that it asks us whether we really ought to wait for a strike to occur before we act, especially when the terrorists make no bones about their intentions and have the proven capability to carry out their intentions.


Arlington, Va.: Is legal punishment supposed to be primarily a morality judgement? It seems punishiment has several purposes, including providing some sense of justice to those who've been wronged.

I'd say that the prison time for the DUI who killed the child is for the child's family (and for all the families out there who've suffered from drunk driving), not the DUI. (Although depending on his own morality, he may also benefit from the chance to "pay" for his crime)

Shankar Vedantam: You addressed this question in response to something Fiery said, but I will add a word: In our interview, Fiery said drunk driving laws may be a particularly good example of how the different moral mechanisms we have in our minds can lead us astray. Currently, our system lets most drunk drivers off with a rap on the wrist -- a fine or points etc -- and penalizes a small handful of drivers (who cause death and serious injuries to victims) with huge penalties, including jail time. If drunk driving laws are primarily aimed at preventing drunk driving in the future, this does not seem to be a good way to go about it, because most people are being let off without much pain. Much better would be to levy a substantial fine on all drunk drivers who are caught, and channel the money into a national fund that could compensate the victims of drunk driving accidents. At one stroke, you would create a really strong disincentive to drive drunk and a system to compensate victims of drunk driving accidents without dipping into taxpayer dollars. The only downside is that someone who kills a child would pay the same fine as someone who hits a tree, and our internal moral compass feels there is something seriously wrong about that.

Fiery Cushman: In your discussion, the two of you have touched on some very deep themes that run through the philosophy of law, and after hundreds of years still engender spirited controversy.

My own perspective, as a psychologist rather than a policy-maker, is often not to ask "how *should* we respond to harmful actions?", but rather to ask "how *do* we respond to harmful actions -- and why?" The "why" question is a very important one to ask. Arlington, you're absolutely right that people's sense of retributive justice is highly outcome-based. To a psychologist, this leads naturally to the question, "why?" In theory, our minds might prefer to avenge bad intentions, rather than bad consequences.

Answering this "why" question is an ongoing area of research for me, and I hope that I'll have some answers to offer soon!


Baton Rouge, La.: Until we laugh bronze age religions out of existence, reveal leaders as corrupters who rule by fear, educate that overpopulation is the planet's greatest threat and demand truth from prostituted media we are doomed to repeat our sad history and stall evolution to suffication.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the note, Baton Rouge. Comments, anyone?


Princeton, N.J.: It seems your definition is much the same as mine. So you would agree the fire bombing of Dresden, say, was a much greater act of terrorism than 9/11, yet today we support one, but not the other. This is the strange dichotomy you should be looking at.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Princeton. I find it problematic to compare specific examples, because the context varies so widely. The firebombing of Dresden was horrific, but I expect its supporters will say its ultimate aim was to defeat Nazi Germany. There is also considerable debate about whether terrorism is the sole province of non-state actors or could also include states. As I said before, this may all be grounds for a longer -- and separate -- conversation ...


Clifton, Va.: Sorry, but the bombing of Dresden and Toyko had a purpose. As did nuking Japan.

You have to conisder what was going on at the time. These bombings served a function and shortened the war. The Germans had dispersed their industry to such a degree precision bombing was ineffective.

Read your history!

Shankar Vedantam: Here is another response to Princeton. Thanks, Clifton.


bush-hitter vs girl-killer...: What's wrong with paying more/less for the severe/light consequences of your actions? Though I'm always at odds with "attempted murder" getting a lighter sentence than "first degree murder" - it's only the grace of God and the surgeon's skill that saved the victim.

Fiery Cushman: I think your question perfectly captures the state of "dilemma" that we find ourselves in. In the first sentence, you are attracted to the commonsense notion that "the punishment fits the crime". In the second sentence, you are attracted to the equally commonsense notion that chance outcomes (i.e. the grace of god) shouldn't influence the way we punish people. The tension between these two persepctives is what gives rise to the sense of a tough dilemma.

Psychologists and "experimental philosophers" -- a new movement that brings philosophers out of the armchair and into the lab -- are beginning to realize that there's a common story behind many of the dilemmas we experience. Specifically, dilemmas arise when we have different brain mechanisms that yeild opposing answers to the same question. The neuroscientist and philosopher Josh Greene has done some terrific work showing how people feel stuck in a dilemma when they have to trade off between killing one person and saving many. For instance, is it morally permissible for a Jewish mother to smother her crying baby in order to prevent Nazi soliders from hearing the noise and discovering her whole family in hiding? People feel very torn between to motives in this case! Greene has been able to identify separate brain systems, one that says "Don't smother the baby!" and another that says "Save the maximum number of lives, whatever it takes".

So, the general lesson here is that when we feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, that often reflects the architecture of our moral minds.


Alexandria, Va.: Re: Hitting a bush vs killing a pedestrian. We hear alot about being held accountable for our actions, which would certainly call into question the uneven punishmnent that would be meted out in Mass and many other states. I think a more correct statement that would make more sense would be that we are routinely held responsible for the results of our actions. People drive drunk all that time and are not caught, so face no penalties. Escalating damages mean escalating penalties, so an infraction can carry punishment well beyond it's seemingly minor offense if the results of the action dictates the punishment.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Alexandria. The dilemma Fiery has laid out persists however ... from one point of view, we feel identical actions should be treated identically (two drunk drivers). However identical actions can have different consequences because of unrelated factors -- whether there is a tree in the yard or a small child -- and we also feel that different consequences should be treated differently ...


Princeton, N.J.: Oh come on Clifton. You don't think 9/11 had a purpose? You don't think the bombers in Isreal have a purpose? Read your history!

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Princeton. Over to you, Clifton --


Arlington, Va.: Air pollution from coal-fired power plants and from car exhaust causes lung diseases, and premature deaths. To me, this is a moral issue, since people are dying. How can conservative oil companies and car companies deny this harm? Why do they fight to continue the pollution, when it is harming people's health? Does their own financial self interest cause them to be blind to the harm done to others?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Arlington. The question relevant to this discussion from your work is why we feel more outraged by a terrorist attack that kills several hundred people in one terrible strike than an environmental castastrophe that kills thousands over time. You can find many examples of such paradoxes: People fear nuclear power and don't fear fossil fuels. But if you go by the track record and what scientists tell the future of climate change portends, we ought to be at least as scared of the fossil fuels that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Fiery Cushman: Much recent work in moral psychology suggests that *how* a harm occurs counts for as much (or more) than the mere fact that it *does* occur. People respond strongly to harms that occur by up-close, direct, physical actions: John punches Harry in the face. People respond much less strongly to harms that occur indirectly, at a distance, or by inaction: John doesn't warn Harry about the low clearance in the dark attic, and Harry walks face-first in to a beam.


Baton Rouge, La.: Only natural disasters put things out of our control and so must be suffered (unless prompted by our abuse of the environment).

Disease is too often preventable and may be due to apathy or worse, by design (the increasing belief among many that AIDS, for example was man made and strategically placed where it could be ignored while festering or the 'bird flu' fraud whose "prevention" could only be acheived by an inoculation from a company that Donald Rumsfeld is heavily invested in).

The media has long been compromised and what we, the hoi polloi, are permitted to be distracted by (sports, the cult of celebrity, concentrated on the more lurid outrages of say a single little white girl missing while millions more, less attractive candidates have disappeared) has kept from traditional forms of public discourse (thank your god for the internet while it is yet free!) those matters which truly challenge a future for humans.

We are understandably outraged when we realize some vulgar human, most often motivated by greed, stands behind tragedy and lately we are frustrated that these villans go unpunished (Bin Laden, the liars who sent our troops to their doom in Iraq or the insane bailout of the uber-wealthy at the expense of citizen/fodder) even after they are identified.

But the basis for all these little reindeer games is the continued belief in those tribalistic religions born in hallucinations by cavemen, by mysogenists concerned that the "things" accumulated in life won't pass to male heirs after death, controlled by fear and subsequent mistrust and paranoia. Stolen and compromised myths whose interpretations are the property of the mysterious sacrosanct and sold, as most frauds are, by the pretty wrappings of their more peaceful tenets.

Few people want conflict in their lives (only the mentally ill a form of which is avarice). Most want to raise their family in peace and safety, in comfort which means food, clothing and shelter, some time to reflect, maybe dance or sing or create and enjoy beauty.

To back things down from the doom that seems to envelope us we must; (1) Laugh organized religions out of existence (with truth and imagine the resources and property that would free up) (2) Punish transgressors quite publically and for the right reasons (not scapegoats as is done in China) (3) Educate a too ignorant world that overpopulation seeds our doom, feeds the purveyors of tribalistic xenophobia and their coffers and that humans, in their current form should not be recreating (notice here that the more radical fundementalists of the 3 major religions breed like rabbits and that evolution is stalled).

Our only hope is truth. Bare truth. And education (its bold march stalled in the glow of hypnotic television, in HD).

I believe in the basic human spirit when not corrupted by lies. In the early 70's I attended the largest outdoor concert ever, In Watkins Glen. It was a time when the corrupters weren't as in control (it helped that there was a draft kidnapping the innocent for an unpopular war). Estimated at 500,000 people the badges had to give way to people harmlessly smoking weed and though the conditions were trying to my recollection no one died. At one point, amid the vast bowl-like field, a biker gang attempted to start trouble with some people in their immediate vicinity. Tens of thousands seated behind and slightly above them started laughing at them. They melted to the ground without incident.

Richard W.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Baton Rouge.


Lyme, Conn.: How would you compare the econonmic motivation arguments with the psychological motivations of becoming a terrorist? There used to be a conventional wisdom that terrorism was a response of someone economically and politicall powerless and deprived who had no reaction left but to respond in terror. Yet we are finding terrorists coming from a variety of economic backgrounds that suggest as individuals they had options. How do you explain this?

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks for the question, Lyme. I think the idea that terrorists necessarily come from poor or powerless backgrounds has been pretty thoroughly debunked in recent years. We have all seen examples of architects, physicians and even doctors taking to terrorism. Osama Bin Laden comes from a family with an enormous fortune. It is true that terrorists often speak in the name of the powerless and the poor, but that does not mean they are themselves individually powerless and poor ...


When I do something bad...: I find it hard to believe that the Mumbai killers or the Nazi pilots over London thought they were doing anything bad. To the contrary, they probably thought they were saving the world.

Shankar Vedantam: Right. I think this is unquestionably true.

As far as the topic we are on today, however, the question is how our internal moral compasses instantly provide us with answers when we are confronted by a conundrum. That in itself should tell us we are using mental shortcuts, and potentially prone to contradiction and error.

Fiery Cushman: Some nice work by the psychologist David Pizarro illustrates that even as third parties, we tend to ascribe motives to harmdoers according to our own biases. For instance, Pizarro describes two situations: the U.S. military bombs a insurgency target in Iraq knowing that it will kill Iraqi civilans, and Iraqi insurgents bomb a U.S. military target in Iraq knowing that it will kill Iraqi civilians. Pizzaro found that American liberals were more likely to say that the U.S. military "intentionally" killed Iraqi civilians compared to American conservatives. Meanwhile, American conservatives were more likely to say that the insurgents "intentionally" killed Iraqi civilians compared to American liberals.


"Actus Reus". : This is no longer the case. Read about the many conspiracy cases or Ledbetter v Goodyear where the dicrimination was ruled to ocurr when the decision was made to pay her less than her male co-workers, not when she actually got the check.

Also I wouldn't talk about bombing the Capitol in public today.

Fiery Cushman: Thanks for the correction! I'm not familiar with the case, but I'm going to upload your comment so that others who may be curious can follow up on it.


Berkeley, Calif.: War making or terrorism has little to do with individual guilt. It is a tribal activity and tribal identity has everything to do with moral judgments made concerning such acts. Trying to wrap morality concerning individuals around these cases is like the square peg and round hole.

Shankar Vedantam: Thanks, Berkeley.


Shankar Vedantam: That brings us to the end of a very stimulating and thought-provoking chat. A special round of applause for Fiery Cushman from Harvard -- I am so grateful he could make this conversation. Thanks to all who asked and answered questions, and to everyone on the sidelines listening in.


Fiery Cushman: Thanks, Shankar and the folks at the Washington Post for hosting this, and thanks to all of you for your questions!


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