David Brooks and homicidal fantasies | Bleader

Thursday, April 19, 2012

David Brooks and homicidal fantasies

Posted By on 04.19.12 at 09:46 AM

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New York Times columnist David Brooks
  • 16 Miles of String
  • New York Times columnist David Brooks
Should a journalist who cites scientific research to make a point check the validity of the research?

"When somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused," David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last month. "But of course it happens all the time. That’s because even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder. . . . We're natural-born killers."

Brooks was ruminating on the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in March, allegedly committed by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. As evidence of our latent murderous potential, the op-ed columnist pointed to the research of evolutionary psychologist David Buss of the University of Texas. 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.

Leaving aside the issue of the significance of fantasies, I wondered about the reliability of the research Brooks was citing to buttress the point he was intent on making.

Brooks apparently was relying on Buss's 2005 book, The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed To Kill. This is a groundbreaking book, according to Buss himself—founded on "the most penetrating, comprehensive, and scientifically sound theory of murder ever proposed," Buss writes in it.

Some scientists found Buss's theory less sound. "Ugly evolutionary icing with no basis" and "bad science," two scientists told a writer for the Wall Street Journal when the book was published. Buss closed the book by warning readers that "Murderers are waiting, they are watching, they are all around us."

As for the study Brooks cited, Buss noted in the book that he surveyed students in a class in human nature on their homicidal fantasies: "I had the students complete a questionnaire asking, 'Have you ever thought about killing someone?' If the answer turned out to be "yes," they were instructed to describe the specific circumstances that had triggered their homicidal thought, their relationship to the victim, and the method of killing that they had fantasized about."

When he read through the responses in his office, he was stunned: "Nothing had prepared me for the outpouring of murderous thoughts my students reported," he wrote—especially since his students were "intelligent, well-scrubbed, mostly middle-class kids, not the gang members or troubled runaways one might expect to express violent rage." He "began to suspect that actual homicides were just the tip of the deep psychological iceberg of murder. Could actual murder be only the most flagrant outcome of a fundamental human drive to kill?"

His lab went on to conduct "the largest scientific study ever carried out" on homicidal fantasies. More than 5,000 people across the world were "interviewed intensively," and 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women reported having at least one vivid homicidal fantasy, he said.

So to start with, the 91 percent and 84 percent results apparently weren't from Buss's original survey of his students, as Brooks had written; according to Buss, they came from a later study.

And how trustworthy was that study? As any reporter (and any scientist) knows, the answers one receives are greatly influenced by the questions one asks, and how they're framed. Did Buss simply ask his study subjects, as he said he asked his students, "Have you ever thought about killing someone?" (Or, as Brooks wrote, if they'd ever thought seriously about killing someone?)

I can't answer that for sure, since my phone calls and e-mails to Buss weren't returned. And while Buss offered the astonishing findings of his "largest scientific study ever" in his book, he didn't present the study itself, and if it's ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal, I've been unable to find it.

I did find a 2005 dissertation on "Homicidal Ideations" by Buss's protege, Joshua Duntley, whose dissertation committee was chaired by Buss. Duntley refers in the dissertation to a survey of 612 men and 556 women in the Austin area, in which participants were asked "to report their most vivid or memorable thought of murder."

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.

Brooks is fond of science. In his 2011 book, The Social Animal, he reported on what science reveals about human nature. In an essay ("Fooled By Science") on The Social Animal in the New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr, an evolutionary geneticist and writer, observed that "Brooks never seems fully comfortable with all this science. He often appears ill at ease in a world of technical journals, disagreements among experts, and statistical measures of uncertainty. A working scientist knows, for example, that some findings are more secure than others. . . . To Brooks, science is science. It’s all equally sound and can be taken at face value."

Brooks may be a leading offender in this regard, but he's not alone. Too many of us journalists scoop up a study as ballast for our claims without considering its reliability. We're natural-born science exploiters.

Jena Cutie helped research this post.

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