Is it easier to kill from a distance? The answer is yes, according to California State University, Northridge psychology professor Abraham Rutchick, who conducted one of the first experimental studies on the effect distance has on a person’s decision to take a life.
The study, “Technologically facilitated remoteness increases killing behavior,” was published earlier this month by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. While his study involved the “killing” of ladybugs, Rutchick said the results raise questions about how aware those making the decisions to kill remotely — such as military personnel who oversee drone strikes — are about the influences on those decisions.
“A simple decision about killing ladybugs raises so many larger questions about human beings and the fundamental questions about the decision to kill or not kill,” Rutchick said.
Rutchick said he came up with the idea for the study in 2009 as more and more news stories began to focus on the increasing use of drones in contemporary warfare.
“The use of drones and drone strikes were on the rise and I wondered about the impact, psychologically, the distance associated with the use of drones has on the decisions to use drone strikes,” he said. “The use of technology and distance has always been a part of killing — after all, someone realized long ago that it was easier to kill throwing a spear than up close — but this, a new medium of technology, is qualitatively different. I wondered if the distance could have a psychological impact.”
“Killing remotely might by psychologically easier than killing face-to-face, which could promote more killing behavior and incur less-severe emotional consequences,” Rutchick said.
Rutchick tapped into the talent of fellow CSUN psychology professors Andrew Ainsworth and Robert Youmans to design an experimental study that measured whether people found it easier to kill when there was a distance between themselves and their victims. They created a remote-controlled machine that purported to killed ladybugs.
Rutchick said ladybugs were chosen “because everyone likes ladybugs.”
More than 330 CSUN undergraduate students were recruited to test the machine. They were told the machine could be useful in producing biological samples or dye at an industrial scale. They were shown how to use the remote control to operate a conveyor belt that would carry the ladybugs to a box with a grinder and their deaths. (He is quick to note that no actual ladybugs were intentionally killed during the experiment.)
The test subjects were divided into three groups: those who operated the machine in the same room as the machine; those who were told the machine was in another location in California and operated it via Skype; and those who were told the machine was in Virginia and operated it via Skype. Each group could “kill” as many ladybugs as they liked, but had to kill at least two of the insects to ensure they conducted a “good” test of the machine.
The study — conducted with the help of then-undergraduate student Denise Barth and graduate students Ryan McManus and H. Johnny Goukassian — found that participants killed more ladybugs when they were in different rooms than their targets. It also found that participants who killed more, and were thus engaged in the killing task for longer, reported experiencing fewer negative emotions about what they did.
Rutchick said he was surprised to find that the location of the machine — whether in Virginia or California — made little difference to those operating the machine from a distance.
“We do know that when people are faced with moral dilemmas, if the process is more intimate and personal, the decisions are harder than for those who are more withdrawn from the situation,” he said. “The extent of the distance, in this case, didn’t seem to make a difference.”
Rutchick said he hopes his study, which constitutes the first experimental evidence that remoteness can increase killing behavior, will encourage a discussion about our growing reliance on drones and other such technology to kill.
“[The study] powerfully demonstrates the impact of psychological distance, going beyond its well-documented effects on cognition and judgment to influence a behavior of fundamental human importance,” he wrote as part of the report on the study’s findings. “These findings also have implications for moral psychology, suggesting that the differences in judgment observed between more and less intimate moral dilemmas may also manifest in behavior.”
Rutchick said he does not intend to tell military leaders how to their job. “But the finding of this study, hopefully, will inspire a conversation — when people are considering a lethal decision — about what is impacting that decision,” he said.