Physical Remoteness Makes Killing Easier

People seem less reluctant to end the life of another being when they are not physically present for the distasteful act.
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A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, a hunter-killer surveillance UAV.

A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, a hunter-killer surveillance UAV.

Most of us have few qualms about killing insects. Ladybugs, however, are a different matter. They're adorable. They're delicate. Heck, some have even been to London to see the queen.

It turns out they are also enormously helpful in teasing out a troubling psychological truth. A new study in which participants were instructed to send these tiny creatures to their demise provides evidence that, for humans, killing is apparently easier when it is done from a remote location.

This is extremely relevant given our increasing reliance on drone warfare, in which the decision to drop a bomb is often made by a controller on another continent.

In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a research team led by psychologist Abraham Rutchick of California State University–Northridge notes that ethicists have fretted about the possibility of such an effect. But scientific evidence has been lacking, largely because of the difficulty of designing an experiment that could test the proposition.

Rutchick and his colleagues landed on ladybugs as a substitute target for execution.

"As ladybugs are often viewed as lucky or cute," they write, "we reasoned that the participants would hold inhibitions against killing them." The question was whether these inhibitions would be weakened if they were dispatched at a distance.

The participants, 317 university undergraduates, were told that the study involved the use of a machine to kill these insects. They were shown this contraption—"a black box on which a conveyor belt was mounted"—and watched as a research assistant demonstrated how ladybugs are dropped into the machine, which immediately grinds them up.

Each participant was then presented with 10 ladybugs, each encased in a clear plastic capsule. They were instructed to use the machine to kill at least two of them ("so that we have a good test"), but they were free to kill all 10 if they liked.

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One group of students "completed the study in the same room as the machine, seated two feet from it." Another did so from a different room; they "saw and heard the machine using videoconference software." Among those in the latter group, half were informed that the machine was in the same building, while the others were told it was in a laboratory on the other side of the country.

The key result: "Participants who were in the same room as the insects killed fewer of them than participants who killed remotely," the researchers report. (Well, they thought they did: The machine was a convincing fake. No ladybugs were harmed in the course of the experiment.)

Interestingly, among those in the remote group, the belief that the machine was in another state (as opposed to another room) did not significantly increase the number of bugs they killed. To Rutchick and his colleagues, this suggests the distancing effect is "driven more by psychological remoteness than spatial distance."

Needless to say, executing fellow humans is fundamentally different from slaying even an adorable insect. Nevertheless, this study "constitutes the first experimental evidence that remoteness can increase killing behavior," the researchers write.

"Given the appeal of putting fewer soldiers in harm's way, the trend toward lethal technology is likely inexorable," they add. Knowing that reality, it's important that we grasp the psychological consequences of committing annihilation from afar.

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