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Sadism, trolley problems and fire ants

The first time I saw The Sound of Music I was about six or seven.

At that age, I was aware that Europe was a place, and that my parents' best friends had gone there and brought back vacation photos and a bright red lacquered pair of wooden shoes for my sister and me to play dress-up in, but that was about it. After the movie, I was full of questions: what was the deal with Austria and Germany? Why were all the women in the first part dressed like penguins? Who were all those guys with guns?

The answers left me with even more questions, so I started reading, beginning with the World Book encyclopedia. Long story short, as a grade schooler I was morbidly obsessed with World War II and particularly the Holocaust, in that way that only an autistic child with access to a library can perseverate. In fourth grade, my best friend Nadine Topalian and I played soldiers in her back yard, smashing the Nazi stranglehold on Europe with imaginary guns and tanks. Mrs. Topalian had mentioned in passing that their family was Armenian. It would be years before I learned there had also been an Armenian genocide.

I wonder, now, what she thought about while she watched her daughter and her friend play.

This fascination with the intentional infliction of suffering is why I find this paper (PDF here) so interesting. (Wars and serial killers are about the same trainwrecky level of MUST STARE AT IT for me.) In it, the researchers gave people the opportunity to crush bugs in a coffee grinder (modified so that the bugs would actually fall safely into a hidden chamber, with a convincing grinding sound effect). People who enjoyed crushing bugs — some of whom even volunteered to crush more bugs — were also the only ones willing to put in effort to punish an innocent victim, although nonsadists with other Dark Triad traits were willing to do so when little effort was required.

I have to confess, in that situation, my first question would be "what kind of bugs." Fire ants, for instance, are assholes. They chew through buried power lines, they drive out native species, and they damn near killed me when I was two. I carry a grudge about fire ants, and given the opportunity I would gladly grind every fire ant you care to bring me to a smooth, acidic paste. Ladybugs, though? Fuck no, those are a beneficial species. I don't think I'd even be okay with grinding up flies; they're pesky and they spread disease, but they're not actively dicks like fire ants are. The bugs in the study were pillbugs, which are not even bugs at all and are friendly, harmless little things, so no, I would not have killed bugs in this study. What if they'd handed me a cup full of pillbugs and fire ants? Well, I'm not going to pick through a mess of fire ants with my bare hands to fish the pillbugs out, so I guess in that situation the fire ants get to live. (I am now somewhat possessed by the question of which thought experiments become more interesting with fire ants. "Imagine a room with one window in it, full of Chinese dictionaries and fire ants...")

I'm not sure whether this makes me a nonsadist or a sadist with a Schelling fence about who it's acceptable to be sadistic to, somehow based on the harm/care axis. I don't think it's correct or useful to restrict the notion of sadism only to those who punish the undeserving; certainly there exist people who, given the slightest excuse, will unload everything they have on a target they construe as "acceptable," and proportionality is important here. People who gleefully go around looking for acceptable targets to beat on give me the screaming heebie-jeebies, particularly when the means they use to do the beating go way beyond the severity of whatever they're using as an acceptability justification. Are such people sadists? I'm inclined to agree; they're sadists with enough theory of mind to infer which sadistic acts, what degree of sadism, and which justifications other people will let them get away with. But the fact that people let others get away with harm doesn't mean that the harm, or its root cause, don't exist.

Am I a sadist toward fire ants if I'm motivated by enjoying their suffering? This seems to be what the second part of the study sought to explore: sure, some people will opportunistically inflict suffering if the cost is low, but people will only work to inflict suffering if the infliction provides enough reward to offset the opportunity cost of putting in the work. The thought of fire ants writhing in tiny formic misery pleases me, but let's go back to the cup-o-pillbugs example. Mostly I don't want to get bitten, but even if they gave me tweezers or ant-proof gloves or a robotic arm to sort ants from pillbugs, I can't see myself putting in the effort; I despise fire ants, but not that much.

But the people who do despise fire ants — or Jews, or Armenians, or sex workers — enough to go out of their way to obliterate them are still a source of morbid fascination for me. The Third Reich took an enormous amount of effort and coordination among thousands of people, and even after thirty years of thinking about it, "why?" is still a black box. Sure, to the people at the bottom of the hierarchy, it was little more than a jobs program that happened to encompass some of the most appallingly evil jobs ever to have existed. What I want to know is, what the fuck kind of mind do you have to have to be the guy who draws up that org chart? Normal people do not go to HR and say "okay, we need thirty carpenters, five heavy equipment operators, ten medical technicians and a team that can operate a gas chamber." I can tell when someone is acting sadistically or has acted sadistically, and with enough observation I can make pretty decent guesses as to whether someone will act sadistically given a low enough opportunity cost, but this gives me no information about why they act sadistically. Where does the joy in it come from? What else does it compare to? How long does it last? Is it only (or more) enjoyable against certain targets, or are there sadists for whom any target will do? For sadists for whom any target will do, why don't they attack everyone?

Target selection continues to be the most interesting open problem in the domain of conflict. In all seriousness, though, fuck fire ants.



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 10th, 2015 05:47 pm (UTC)
The best answer I've come up with is that people afraid of being at the bottom of the status hierarchy will do whatever it takes to push someone below them on it.
Jul. 11th, 2015 01:59 am (UTC)
There is a connection between the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, and the genocide of the Jews and Slavs by the Germans in WWII. Namely, it was the world's total lack of imposition of any consequences on Turkey for this mass murder which convinced Hitler that his own Final Solution could be a reasonable and practical policy.

We are still catering to the Turks on this matter.
Jul. 13th, 2015 05:09 am (UTC)
"For sadists for whom any target will do, why don't they attack everyone?"

Because they also have a sense of self-preservation, and also, because even a sadist has a top level of effort beyond which they won't go.

I love the way you write :)
Jul. 14th, 2015 04:21 am (UTC)
Handful of thoughts, disconnected:

I agree this is fascinating stuff. I've been curious about how cruelty / sadism works in minds as long as I can remember.

I think you're maybe not differentiating enough here between cruelty and hatred; the desire for suffering vs. the desire for eradication. They overlap at times but I think they're different drives. People who are acting out of cruelty are drawn-in close to their victims. They are enjoying the awareness of the victim's suffering. People who are acting out of hatred often act to dehumanize, distance and objectify the victim because they are repulsed by them.

Again, these overlap: in a genocide you might have (say) people getting involved at an operational level due more to hatred, but then transitioning more to cruelty when it comes time to actually become familiar with the victims and decide to kill them (where a different set of perpetrators withdraw from the act and become cold and calculating; and still another can't stomach it, realize what they were doing and stop).

I think one of the vectors of emotional cross-pollenation is that of guilt via self awareness: that a person can go from enjoying awareness of someone's suffering, to feeling guilt about that enjoyment, to wanting to eliminate the object of the enjoyment from existence very quickly; or can go from hating something merely foreign, to guilt about harboring that hatred, to wanting to make someone suffer to displace the bad guilt feelings.

I also vaguely suspect this guilt transfer mechanism serves to turn all sorts of negative feelings towards others -- envy, intimidation, suspicion -- into initiators of a hatred/cruelty feedback cycle. I've debated you over the merits of guilt in the past, but one thing I wholeheartedly agree with you over is that it's powerful, something people will go to great lengths to avoid feeling.

Unrelated, but: of the accounts of the internal machinery of the 3rd reich I've heard, the most chilling wasn't the "banality of evil" description of mid-level functionaries (which exist in every system, healthy or sick), but a description of the system of promotion and punishment in the leadership and decision-making system, wherein people were incentivized from the top down to demonstrate ever-more-flagrant forms of zeal in their hatred/cruelty mixture; that promotion came from outdoing your peers in horribleness. I've no idea how accurate a description this was, it came up in some history lecture I listened to several years ago.
Jul. 14th, 2015 11:40 am (UTC)
I think your "unrelated" is very related, actually, given how top-down the entire Third Reich organisational structure was. The guys drawing up the org charts weren't, as I understand it, the mid-level functionaries. This is also why the horribly broken incentive system of promotion for USDOJ prosecutors bothers me so much.

More after work; you make a really good point about suffering vs. eradication.
Feb. 19th, 2020 12:56 pm (UTC)
Well, it’s 2020, and China is running a 20th century totalitarian genocide playbook with 21st century technology.

What do?
Feb. 19th, 2020 04:59 pm (UTC)
Hope they don't come looking for us? Run away? I don't see any practical possibility of resisting a state aside from "not being where or who it wants to exert itself against".
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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