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Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence

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Introductory Words about Truth, Legend, and Bullshit: Putting the “Pissed” back into Epistemology

Truth is secondary. On its own, it doesn’t help us survive or reproduce, and it isn’t even necessarily any fun. Truth often does us more harm than good. Human beings have not evolved to actively care about and seek out truth for its own sake. (It’s often beneficial to signal that one cares about truth when one does not – this, rather than mere factual inaccuracy, is the genesis of bullshit.)

Truth – and here, I mean factual veracity – is especially vulnerable in the face of legend, the kind of cultural story that invests its believers with feelings of comfort, belonging, and value. Facts that contradict important legends tend to be denied and disbelieved; uncomfortable facts are prevented from reaching consciousness, and if forcibly brought to consciousness, are resoundingly shouted down. (This strong emotional reaction – the shouting-down of facts contradictory to cherished beliefs – is valuable to those who try to serve truth for truth’s sake, because the strong emotional reaction is a clue to the existence of an underlying important cultural legend or fixed belief that can, once identified, be examined.)

Legends are not necessarily universal. The pictures is more complicated. Often there are two or more competing, incompatible legends within a large society on the same topic. Subcultures form around countercultural legends, and these new legends are not necessarily any closer to truth as the majority legend.

Such is the case with beliefs about gender. There are some beliefs about gender roles and differences that are so common among human societies as to form a sort of universal legend. In modern times, feminism has provided a countercultural narrative to many of the traditional beliefs about gender (defining the prevailing norms as patriarchy). Feminism was such a popular critique that it became, over a generation or two, arguably the predominant cultural narrative about gender in modern Western society. And a counter-counter-critique which we might call the men’s rights movement has challenged the feminist narrative (labeling it gynocracy – only sometimes tongue-in-cheek). From the perspective of history, we can see the back-and-forth of revolution and counter-revolution, but we must make our factual judgments in the present moment. Recognizing the narratives and counter-narratives is a first step in looking for truth – but it is by no means a final step.

Every source has its biases; I myself, as stripped of myth as I consider myself to be, no doubt operate with my own unrecognized legends forming the firmament of my consciousness. But let’s try to look beneath at least the truth-threatening legends we can recognize, while remaining open to the possibility that our reasoning may be swayed by unseen narratives.

Legends exist where, for the legend believer, some fact must be true or can’t be true. That is, the need to believe the legend is greater than the desire for truth (this is the origin of political correctness – a particular form of the more general class of bullshit). But compare the life work of even someone as purportedly truth-seeking as a scientist; if a scientist becomes identified with a particular theory, it must be mortally terrifying to have this theory threatened. One’s life work will be undone. I think we must be circumspect about even the truth-orientation of scientists. But that doesn’t make science worthless; only imperfect.

On to the Sex and Violence

I am interested here in violence in sexual relationships, or marital violence, if you prefer.[1] Specifically, I am interested in the question of how violence by men in relationships compares to violence by women in relationships. Murray Straus and others claim that women are just as violent in relationships as men – in terms of frequency and severity of violence. Others dispute this claim. I can’t pretend to be neutral, since I had formed the belief prior to writing this article that men are, in fact, more violent than women in relationships; but many people that I respect (including David Benatar) have articulated the opposite belief, and I must ardently promise (okay, signal) that I was, and still am, open for correction on this issue if presented with strong evidence.

Evidence

At the outset, I ask the reader to imagine himself a sociologist, and to think about what sources we might consult to explore the question of who is more violent in relationships, and what these sources’ limitations might be. As a sort of epistemological meta-issue, we would ideally like to find lots of different types of sources using different methodologies; and the more these diverse sources agree, the more confident we may be in our conclusion. Similarly, if a source has a limitation or potential bias, we must examine such limitations and biases. Assuming that a bias exists it is as unscientific as assuming there is no bias – such a claim must be examined, not assumed to be true or false.

In brief, some of the sources we might consult – and their expected limitations – are as follows: (please suggest other sources in the comments section)

  • General population surveys, utilizing various methodologies. (Limitations: depends on both truthfulness and accuracy of subjects)
  • Targeted surveys using various methodologies. (Limitations: findings may not reflect general population; depends on truthfulness and accuracy of subjects
  • Emergency room records. (Limitations: only catches violence that produces injury, and for which treatment is sought. Lesser and unreported violence will not be counted. Cause of injury may be partly determined by report of subjects, so some of the same limitations as survey data.)
  • Data on people seeking help with domestic violence (shelters, hotlines, etc.). (Limitations: only catches reported violence for which help is sought. Depends on truthfulness and accuracy of responders.)
  • Police assault records. (Limitations: Only catches violence that is reported to police. Conclusions may be partially based on reports by subjects, so truthfulness and accuracy of subjects is still an issue.)
  • Homicide records. (Limitations: only catches the most severe violence, which may or may not reflect general levels of violence.)

The error in these sources may be random (noise), or it may be systematic – effectively biasing the results in a particular direction. The latter type of error is more dangerous, from our perspective.

One type of systematic bias we must consider is that men may be less likely to report violence than women. It is shameful, we might hypothesize, for a man to let a woman smack him around; he might feel a bit silly going to the hospital or to police, or responding to a survey, even, especially given that human males are on average about 15% more massive than human females. This is related to the fact that, at the outset, we probably assign the greater probability to males being more violent in relationships; the idea that women are just as violent in relationships as men is counterintuitive, but that might just be because there is a huge, unrecognized epidemic of battered husbands too humiliated to speak out. It might be that the belief that men are more violent than women, that battered wives are more prevalent than battered husbands, is just a cultural legend that is ripe for toppling.

What the Case for Sexual Symmetry of Marital Violence is Based Upon

1. Conflict Tactics Scale

Beginning in the 1970s and continuing until the present day, Murray Straus began claiming that women are as violent as men in relationships. His claim in the initial studies was based on a single source of data: a survey of married or cohabiting couples, using the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) as its methodology.[2] Other researchers have since joined Straus; generally, they use the exact same methodology as the studies in the 1970s, that is, the Conflict Tactics Scale. This reliance on a single source of data for confirmation is endemic to those who claim sexual symmetry in marital violence; one 2000 meta-study[3] found that out of 82 empirical studies that found marital violence to be equal between genders, 76 of them used CTS measures exclusively.[4]

The CTS is nearly the only methodology that produces the counterintuitive result of gender symmetry in relationship violence. Where a hypothesis is supported by only a single source of data, and contradicted by all other sources, this does not necessarily mean that the single source is wrong. It does, however, necessitate careful review of the source producing the aberrant result. I will examine the CTS shortly. But there is one other source which produces similar results, and that is:

2. American Homicide Data

In the United States, women are nearly as likely to kill their husbands as men are to kill their wives. The Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) – the ratio of women who kill husbands (legal or de facto) to men who kill wives – is about 75 in the United States, meaning about 75 women kill their husbands or live-in boyfriends for every 100 men who kill their wives or live-in girlfriends.[5]

And that’s pretty much . . . it.

What the Case for Asymmetry is Based Upon

Everything else.

Seriously.

Evidence from criminal and divorce courts, police, women’s shelters, and emergency rooms all support the hypothesis that males commit considerably more violence than females in relationships, as do survey data using methodologies other than CTS.[4][6][7][8][9]

American SROK is Not Reflected by Homicides in Other Countries

Again, in the United States there are nearly equal homicide rates between husbands and wives (75 husband-killings for every 100 wife-killings). In every country other than the United States, however, the Sex Ratio of Killing (SROK) is quite low – in no case higher than 40, and generally much lower than that.[6] This peculiarity of SROK data to the United States pretty much destroys its probative value for sexual symmetry of violence. As Dobash et al. note,

. . . U.S. homicide data and CTS data from several countries have been invoked as complimentary pieces of evidence for women’s and men’s equivalent uses of violence (citations omitted). One cannot have it both ways. If the lack of sex differences in CTS results is considered proof of sexually symmetrical violence, then homicide data must somehow be dismissed as irrelevant, since homicides generally fail to exhibit this supposedly more basic symmetry. Conversely, if U.S. homicide counts constitute relevant evidence, the large sex differences found elsewhere surely indicate that violence is peculiarly symmetrical only in the United States, and the fact that the CTS fails to detect sex differences in other countries must then be taken to mean that CTS is insensitive to genuine differences.[6]

Advocates of the sexual symmetry of violence hypothesis point to the reporting bias – mentioned above – to justify the poor match between CTS data and all the other data (except international homicide data, which, as they cannot be dismissed as products of reporting bias, go unexplained). Men, it is posited, are less likely to seek a protective order, to call the police, to go to the emergency room, to seek help from a hotline or shelter, to press charges against an offender, and to report being victimized to the National Crime Victims Survey (though not, for some reason, on CTS). Is this factually accurate? One study[10] found that male victims of domestic violence are actually significantly more likely than women to report domestic violence to the police – twice as likely, in fact – and less likely to drop the charges. Without data, we should not assume that a particular bias exists, any more than we should assume a particular data set is perfect and without bias. It is also a bit silly to assume that all violence against women is reported; women have strong reasons not to report marital violence, just as men do.

Why the CTS is Kind Of Retarded

1. Zero Interobserver Reliability

If CTS surveys were factually accurate, and were in fact detecting real phenomena, we would expect the reports of husbands and their wives to match. The validity of the CTS depends on people telling the truth; a necessary (thought not sufficient) condition for factual accuracy is that witnesses of the same incident agree with each other. In the case of marital violence and the CTS, they don’t. A given husband and wife interviewed separately using CTS methodology are no more likely than chance to agree in their reports of violence in the relationship. From Dobash et al.:

Szinovacz (1983)[11] found that 103 couples’ accounts of the violence in their interactions matched to a degree little greater than chance. On several CTS items, mainly the most severe ones, agreement was actually below chance . . . . In a similar study, Jouriles and O’Leary (1985)[12] administered the CTS to 65 couples attending a marital therapy clinic, and 37 couples from the local community. For many of the acts, the frequency and percentage data reported are impossible to reconcile [that is, data reported are mathematically impossible. -ed.]; for others, Jouriles and O’Leary reported a concordance statistic (Cohen’s Kappa) as equalling [sic] zero when the correct values were negative. Straus (1990b)[13] cites this study as conferring validity on the CTS, but in fact, its results replicated Szinovacz’s (1983)[11]: husband/wife agreement scarcely exceeded chance expectation and actually fell below chance on some items.[6] [Bolded emphasis mine.]

2. Conflation of Serious with Minor Violence

The Conflict Tactics scale asks responders to relate the violence they have perpetrated or experienced in their relationships according to acts: whether one has “pushed,” “slapped,” “kicked,” etc. the other. Certain acts are grouped together as mild, moderate, or severe, regardless of the specifics of the situation or the degree of injury, if any. Throwing an object qualifies as a “severe” assault, regardless of the nature of the object, the context of the “assault,” and whether the blow even landed. When case histories are examined closely, the retardedness of this classification becomes obvious. Again quoting Dobash et al.:

In a study of 103 couples, Margolin (1987)[14] found that wives surpassed husbands in their use of “severe violence” according to the CTS, but unlike others who have obtained this result, Margolin troubled to check its meaningfulness with more intensive interviews. She concluded:

While CTS items appear behaviorally specific, their meanings still are open to interpretation. In one couple who endorsed the item “kicking,” for example, we discovered that the kicking took place in bed in a more kidding, than serious, fashion. Although this behavior meets the criterion for severe abuse on the CTS, neither spouse viewed it as aggressive, let alone violent. In another couple, the wife scored on severe physical aggression while the husband scored on low-level aggression only. The inquiry revealed that, after years of passively accepting the husband’s repeated abuse, this wife finally decided, on one occasion, to retaliate by hitting him over the head with a wine decanter.

[6]

CTS pretends to measure, but does not actually measure, the severity of violence.

Violence Outside Relationships

Men are, across the board, more violent than women. Gender (male) is the single greatest predictor of criminal violence. In non-marital contexts, this is not at all controversial. One problem with the sexual symmetry hypothesis is that its proponents fail to provide any theory or explanation for why violence would be asymmetrical in nearly all contexts, but symmetrical in this one limited context. In fact, female violence this context is particularly in need of explanation, since it is particularly bizarre for an actor to choose a victim much larger than she, which husbands generally are. Which brings us to . . .

That Whole Sexual Dimorphism in Body Size Thing

Proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis generally concede that women are more likely to be injured by marital violence than men, yet still maintain that “women initiate and carry out physical assaults on their partners as often as men do.”[15] Focusing on the frequency of violence, rather than the severity and consequences, is silly and dishonest in the context of a physically mismatched pair such as a typical heterosexual couple. Imagine reading a study that found that children were as likely to hit their parents as vice versa, or elderly dependent adults were as likely to hit their caretakers as vice versa. We might say – interesting, but so what? Violence by the physically stronger party is simply more dangerous – more of a “social problem” – than violence by a weaker party. (This is aside from the issue that violence initiated by the stronger party against a weaker party is vastly more common than the reverse in other contexts, casting even more doubt on the veracity of the symmetry claim.)

However, violence against men is not nonexistent; in my experience as a domestic violence attorney, men with physical disabilities were particularly vulnerable to abuse by their female partners.

Evo Psych

The idea of sexual asymmetry in marital violence is not just a feminist idea; it is one grounded in evolutionary psychology. Men have much more to gain from violence against their wives than women do from violence against their husbands. Violence is an effective means of achieving men’s evolutionary aims (maintaining exclusive access to a woman’s reproductive capacity); women are unlikely to advance their evolutionary aims by physical violence against husbands. Women must use other means of getting what they want, which brings me to my . . .

Closing Words: Toward an Evolutionary Biology of the Attack Heifer

Over the past several years in my personal life, I have been baffled by a phenomenon affecting several of my male friends. Four of my male friends are or have been married to extremely mean, unpleasant, downright emotionally abusive women. The abuse was (or is) so severe that all of my friends developed a perceptible depression; one actually began to wet his pants at work (he’s still married, God save him). From an evolutionary perspective, I could understand my friends tolerating this abuse if the females in question were attractive (had high reproductive value); however, in each case, the female is significantly less attractive than the male. Two of the four women are clinically obese as well as ugly; the other two are merely ugly. Based on the baffling (to me) combination of emotional abusiveness and ugliness, I have termed this surprisingly common beast the attack heifer.

My male friends in question are characterized by innocence, lack of experience, and early age at marriage. They are also characterized by IQs within the top tenth of a percent of American adults (easily). Why did (or do) they stay?

My thinking is that this phenomenon – an objectively less “valuable” mate being crappy to a more “valuable” mate – is analogous to the fact that a man is more likely to kill a young wife than an older wife, and that age difference is a strong predictor of interspousal homicide.[16][17] A young wife has a higher reproductive value than an older wife; the husband of a young wife has “more to lose,” and is more likely to use violent tactics to prevent or punish his wife’s infidelity or attempts to leave the marriage.

Similarly, attack heifers perceive that they have a great deal to lose, and escalate their tactics to maintain control within the relationship – not through violent means, which wouldn’t be effective anyway, but using skills at which women surpass men: emotional manipulation.[18] Physical violence is not necessary to cause extreme suffering. Women do not need to be as violent as men to be as evil as men.


1. I dislike the fuzziness of the concept of “romantic relationships,” and marriage is too limiting for what we are discussing, which includes de facto marriages as well as legal unions. I tend to reduce this kind of relationship to its sexual component, which, to me, is what separates romantic relationships from friendships. The special value of sex compared to other, more nebulous concepts involved in romantic relationships, and the questionable value of monogamous relationships, are certainly something of legends for me, albeit examined ones.

2. Straus, Murray A. “Measuring intrafamily conflict and violence: The Conflict Tactics (CT) Scales.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 51:75-88 (1979).

3. Archer, John. “Sex Differences in Aggression Between Heterosexual Partners: A Meta-Analytic Review.Psychological Bulletin 126.4:651-680 (2000).

4. Kimmel, Michael. “‘Gender Symmetry’ in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review.” Violence Against Women 8.11:1332-1363 (2002).

5. Wilson, M. I., and Daly, M. “Who kills whom in spouse killings? On the exceptional sex ratio of spousal homicides in the United States. Criminology 30:189-215 (1992). No, it’s not because of guns, and it’s not because American women are more violent in general. Read the paper – it’s fascinating.

6. Dobash, R.P., Dobash, R.E., Wilson, M., Daly, M. “The myth of sexual symmetry in marital violence.Social Problems 39:71-91 (1992).

7. Felson, Richard. “Big People Hit Little People: Sex Differences in Physical Power and Interpersonal Violence.” Criminology 34.3:433-452 (1996).

8. Henning, Kris, and Lynette Felder. “A Comparison of Men and Women Arrested for Domestic Violence: Who Presents the Greater Threat?” J. Family Violence 19.2:69-80 (2004).

9. There are lots more, of course, but I can’t be arsed currently lack the resources to conduct a major literature review. But notice that even the proponents of the sexual symmetry hypothesis admit that most data sources do not reflect sexual symmetry in intimate partner violence.

10. Kinkaid, Pat. The Omitted Reality: Husband-Wife Violence in Ontario and Policy Implications for Education. Maple, Ontario: Learners Press, 1982. Cited in Dobash et al. (1992), supra.

11. Szinovacz, Maximiliane. “Using couple data as a methodological tool: The case of marital violence.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 45:633-644 (1983).

12. Jouriles, Ernest, and Daniel O’Leary. “Interspousal reliability of reports of marital violence.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53:419-421 (1985).

13. Straus, Murray. “The Conflict Tactics Scales and its critics: An evaluation and new data on validity and reliability.” In Physical Violence in American Families, ed. Murray A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles, 49-73. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers (1990).

14. Margolin, Gayla. “The multiple forms of aggressiveness between marital partners: How do we identify them?” J. Marital and Family Therapy 13:77-84 (1987).

15. Straus, Murray. “Physical Assaults by Wives: A Major Social Problem.” In Current Controversies on Family Violence, Richard Gelles and Donileen Loseke, eds. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publication (1993).

16. Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter (1988); see especially pp. 205-207.

17. Wilson, Margo, and Martin Daly. “Lethal and nonlethal violence against wives and the evolutionary psychology of male sexual proprietariness.” Pp. 199-230, in Violence Against Women: International and Cross-disciplinary Perspectives, Dobash & Dobash, eds. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications (1998).

18. “A man will rip off your arm and throw it into a river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside of your heart.” – Louis CK

Written by Sister Y

August 19, 2010 at 8:46 pm

The Patriarchy, the Gynocracy, and Other Comforting Myths of Struggle

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This post was very sweetly nominated for the 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize. I think Karl Smith’s Pessimist Manifesto articulates the same philosophical points more generally and better.


Conspiracy theories are comforting. They posit an enemy – “bad guys” who are responsible for the mess we’re in – and they give us a group to imagine we’re struggling against, allowing us to be the “good guys.”

Patriarchy is, of course, real – in the Sudan, in Afghanistan, and for tens of thousands of years of human history. “Males dominate public/political realm” is on D.E. Brown’s list of human universals; it characterizes every human society that has ever been studied. Contrary to the wishes of wiccans and the like, there never have been any female-dominated societies.

In the modern West, however, almost all legal barriers to gender equality have been removed – as well as many practical ones (e.g., birth control, abortion, and the information economy). So why aren’t all our problem solved? Why do men still commit the vast majority of lethal violence? Why do men still “dominate the public/political realm”? Why aren’t there as many female math professors as male math professors? Why are female leading actors still mostly young and beautiful?

The comforting conspiracy theory is that all this is from socialization. Boys and girls are somehow influenced, from a young age, to take on the gender roles that they do. If we “good guys” could only change this socialization, then all the problems attributed to patriarchy would vanish.

But only an evolution denier could hold such a position (and, indeed, many feminists are evolutionary psychology deniers). A species with (historic and present) effective polygyny as high as ours is never going to achieve gender equality in anything but a legal sense.

And gynocracy, of course, is real, too – at least recently, in the West. While there are few situations in which the law prefers men over women, there are many situations in which the law protects (and sometimes “protects”) women at the expense of men’s interests. Here are a few:

  • By United States federal law, baby girls may not have their genitals mutilated, but baby boys may.
  • The near-universal prohibition on prostitution primarily affects men’s interests, because men are nearly the sole consumers of sexual services of both male and female prostitutes (fantasies like the television show Hung notwithstanding). A male who is unwilling or unable to enter a mutual sexual output contract has few legal options for obtaining sexual services – certainly a very important part of human happiness.
  • For a female, consent to sex does not equal consent to have and support a child. For a male, it does. A man may be forced to support a child he did not wish to have merely because he is the genetic parent.
  • On the other hand, for a female, being the genetic parent is enough to establish parental rights to the child. A male must often demonstrate more than genetic paternity – e.g., a relationship with the child or attempt to support the child – in order to have parental rights recognized at law.

The above examples of what might be termed “gynocracy” are wrong, and should be rectified. But will all the problems between men and women disappear if only we get the right legal system in place? If it didn’t work for women, why would we expect it to work for men? Or for any other oppressed group?

Evil exists. But there is no “enemy” except ourselves. Evolution has created organisms that compete with each other – intrasexually as well as intersexually. Our organism has developed the concepts of “good” and “evil,” “fairness and “cheating,” that help us live in large groups and compete successfully. But all the “good” and “fairness” in the world does not guarantee human happiness. In fact, it is human suffering that is guaranteed.

Conceiving of problems as struggles between us and our enemies is problematic because it gives false hope – hope that one can “win” the struggle. If only the right people were in charge, we think, things would be alright.

But the hope is a false one. Problems such as those between men and women are deep, systemic, and insoluble. They are part of our nature and will always exist. If we perpetuate our species, we perpetuate the problems. There will never be a time when “it was all worth it” – when we can look back on our previous struggles and pat ourselves on the back.

As we perpetuate our species, we do so on the backs of the suffering. And always shall.

On the curious proposition that women are as violent as men in relationships, see also my Demonic Males and Attack Heifers: On the Sex Ratio of Marital Violence.

Written by Sister Y

July 23, 2010 at 12:03 am

A Siblicide-Suicide

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Followers of The View from Hell know a great deal about murder-suicide – characteristics of the typical shooter, the typical relationship between shooter and victim, etc. Enough to recognize how very, very strange this case of murder suicide is:

Pa. brother, sister die in apparent murder-suicide

YORK, Pa. – Police are investigating an apparent murder-suicide of a brother and sister in south-central Pennsylvania.

Sgt. Rod Varner of the York Area Regional Police says the man was in his 50s and the woman in her 40s. Their names have not been released.

The bodies were found inside an apartment around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. The woman didn’t show up for work at York Hospital, so a co-worker stopped by to check on her. The co-worker found the back door unlocked, discovered the bodies and called 911.

York County Coroner Barry Bloss says the deaths appear to be a murder-suicide , the two appear to have died of gunshot wounds sometime Sunday evening.

Bloss says there were no signs of a struggle inside the home. A gun has been recovered.

While filicide-suicide is fairly common, as is uxoricide-suicide and various combinations of the two, siblicide-suicide is nearly unheard of (thought it is almost certainly more common than stranger homicide-suicide). A murder-suicide happening at all in south-central Pennsylvania must be a very rare occurrence. But do the police in south-central Pennsylvania realize how very strange this particular murder-suicide is?

More details about the incident reveal that the situation of the shooter resembled a maternal filicide-suicide or paternal familicide-suicide in many ways, however:

David Stoner loved his sister, Kathy.

He protected and looked after his sister, who was mentally challenged. He made sure she made it to her job in food services at York Hospital.

But, according to neighbors, David Stoner was sliding deep into depression. He was angry and unhappy after losing his job as a mechanic about a year ago. He became more beaten down each day he could not find work.

The shooter’s caretaking role toward his sister, coupled with the loss of his job, closely resemble the failed belonging/burdensomeness perceived by a suicide, and his relationship with his younger, disabled sister seems to be one that would clearly be a candidate for the proprietariness expressed by familicide-suicides.

Written by Sister Y

June 23, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Censoring Murder-Suicide: What If Everything Is Contagious?

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Ecological studies suggest that highly publicized suicides cause more suicides. But what other behaviors are media-contagious – and why are we so slow to censor (or even study) them?


Idea Contagion

For good or ill, behaviors among humans pass not only by genes, but by language. A judgmental way to put this is that behaviors and ideas are “contagious.” Pathological homesickness, apotemnophilia,[4] multiple personality disorder, and even Ursuline convents in seventeenth-century France[6] have been posited to arise from contagion.

In particular, suicide is widely accepted as a contagious behavior. The posited contagion even has a name – the “Werther effect.” Belief in the media contagion of suicide is so strong and pervasive that “media guidelines” – a form of voluntary censorship – are widely observed in reporting on suicide.

There is evidence that many behaviors other than suicide are similarly “contagious,” however. Violence against others, in particular, is well-studied in its relation to media contagion. The harm of violence, especially homicidal violence like murder and murder-suicide, is much greater than that of suicide. And the evidence in favor of “violence contagion” is stronger than that of suicide contagion. Why, then, are reports of suicide voluntarily censored, while reports of violence are not?

Suicide Contagion: The Evidence

The evidence for suicide contagion through the media is almost entirely ecological. The studies that provide the basis for the phenomenon of suicide contagion are somewhat questionable.[7] Many suffer from lack of control for important variables; those that are controlled suffer from problems with the control groups or small sample size. Some ecological studies have indicated that the suicide contagion phenomenon is real;[2] others have contradicted those findings. Even among studies that find a correlation between suicide rate and media reports of suicides, the correlation is often much weaker than the correlation of the suicide rate with other factors, such as the unemployment rate.[9]

Of course, there is a more abstract critique of ecological-level data in general. A criticism[1] of David Phillips’ ecological data on suicide contagion and fatal aircraft incidents goes as follows:

Phillips asserts that the statistically significant increase in aircraft fatalities can be explained due to suicide, as well as a “consciously or unconsciously” induced motive on the part of the pilot to also murder some person or persons. What Phillips does, in effect, is impute suicidal motives to some deceased persons on the basis of the statistically significant increases in accidents. Such a jump is conceptually unwise because it is based on a tautology: the statistical increase is the basis for defining some cases as suicide, but these cases are also used to explain the increase. [Citations removed.]

At any rate, a major problem with suicide contagion research is a lack of empirical evidence at an individual level. The one case-controlled study that I am aware of[7] fails to demonstrate any link between hearing media reports of suicide and making a suicide attempt – and, in fact, demonstrates that hearing a media report of suicide has a significant protective effect against suicide attempts.

The study authors interviewed 153 people, ages 13-34, who were “victims” of nearly lethal suicide attempts and who had been treated at local emergency rooms in the Houston, Texas, area. A control group of 513 subjects was similarly interviewed. The conclusion? Not only did the study fail to demonstrate any sort of “suicide contagion,” but, as mentioned above, the authors note a statistically significant protective effect when a subject heard a news report of suicide within 30 days prior to the suicide attempt or had a friend or acquaintance make a suicide attempt. That is, the ER suicide-attempt group was actually less likely than the control group to be aware of a recent media report of a suicide, or to have experienced the suicidal behavior of an acquaintance! The suicide attempt of a parent or relative had no statistically significant effect on suicidal behavior, whereas the usual “suicide contagion” sources had a statistically significant protective effect – the opposite of what the suicide contagion model predicts.

Violence Contagion?

The evidence for violence contagion is much stronger than that for suicide contagion. But whereas suicide censorship is widely accepted, censorship of other-directed violence in media stories is rare.

Violence contagion is demonstrated by the same type of ecological study as suicide contagion.[8] In addition, unlike the suicide case, there is a body of laboratory evidence suggesting that exposure to violent stimuli increases aggressive behavior. However, despite both sources of evidence, the theory that media reports of violence “cause” real-life violence is not at all universally accepted.[5] And the idea that the media should voluntarily self-censor with regard to reports of violence is much less widely accepted than self-censorship of reports of suicide, despite greater evidence for a causal link in the former case.

Contagion and Moral Responsibility

I believe that the insistence that suicide is media-contagious, but violence is not, is not rational, but is a consequence of the differential attributions of moral responsibility in cases of suicide versus other-directed violence. Suicide is seen as an irrational act; the actor, as the story goes, is not in control of himself, certainly not sane, and is therefore vulnerable to external effects.

On the other hand, the idea that violent acts like homicides are attributable to media suggestion is generally seen as a pathetic excuse. Perpetrators of violence are perceived as much more morally responsible for their acts than suicides; despite evidence to the contrary, idea contagion is psychologically ruled out as a cause of violence, but not of suicides (though there are exceptions to this line of thinking[3]).

Is political corruption contagious? Adultery? Prostitution? Drug abuse? Such questions are rarely even studied. Obesity certainly appears to be contagious. If so, should we censor reports of these topics to avoid a contagion effect? To do so would seem ludicrous and counter-productive, not to mention contrary to our political ideals. But the censorship of suicide goes unchallenged.

Moral Responsibility and Willingness to Censor

The more an actor is seen as the agent of his actions, the less outside influences are seen as affecting his actions. Therefore, in cases where moral responsibility is strongly attributed to an actor, outside influences are unlikely to be taken seriously as a cause of his actions – and, therefore, it is not necessary to censor these “outside influences” (such as media reports).

It is my belief that the widespread voluntary censorship of reports of suicide – from use of politically correct language to pervasive norms of message content – are the result of the modern trend to exculpate suicides from moral responsibility and redefine suicide as an act of insanity. There is, however, little evidence that suicides are any less morally responsible for their actions than murderers. Certainly, many other behaviors are media-contagious – but they are not censored, nor are many of them even studied.

I think that one possible explanation is that, at a deep level, people understand that suicide is just not that bad compared to actual acts of violence – despite hysterical language describing suicide as “self-murder.” We want to exculpate people from acts to which we are sympathetic. While we often refuse to define acts outside of societal norms as “not wrong,” we may nonetheless refuse to attribute full moral responsibility to these acts. However, this sort of sympathy backfires in our society. People who are “not responsible for their actions” must be “protected,” often in painful and dehumanizing ways; and society is responsible for their “protection,” often to the detriment of freedom.

Think of the children.


On a largely unrelated note, could this be the stupidest news story about suicide of all time?


Works Cited

1. Altheide, David. “Airplane Accidents, Murder, and the Mass Media: Comment on Phillips.Social Forces 2:593-596 (Special Issue, 1981).

2. Bollen, Kenneth, and David Phillips. “Imitative Suicides: A National Study of the Effects of Television News Stories.American Sociological Review 47:802-09 (1982).

3. Coalition of Law Abiding Sporting Shooters. “Ideas Kill: Science Shines a Light on Port Arthur Deaths.” Retrieved from http://www.class.org.au/ideas-kill.htm on 04/06/2009.

4. Elliot, Carl. “A new way to be mad.The Atlantic, December 2000.

5. Gunter, Barrie. “Media Violence: Is There a Case for Causality?American Behavioral Scientist 51:1061 (2008).

6. Jones, Marshall, and Elizabeth Rapley. “Behavioral Contagion and the Rise of Convent Education in France.Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.4:489-521 (2001).

7. Mercy, James, Marcie-jo Kresnow, Patrick W. O’Carroll, Roberta K. Lee, Kenneth E. Powell, Lloyd B. Potter, Alan C. Swann, Ralph F. Frankowski, and Timothy L. Bayer. “Is Suicide Contagious? A Study of the Relation between Exposure to the Suicidal Behavior of Others and Nearly Lethal Suicide Attempts.” (American Journal of Epidemiology 154:2 (2001).

8. Phillips, David. “The Impact of Mass Media Violence on U.S. Homicides.American Sociological Review 48:4:560-568 (1983).

9. Stack, Steven. “Divorce, Suicide, and the Mass Media: An Analysis of Differential Identification, 1948-1980.Journal of Marriage and the Family 2:553-560 (1990).

Written by Sister Y

April 9, 2009 at 6:58 pm