Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

"Wouldn't Hurt a Fly"

Knee-jerk reactions to the Craigsllst Killer case

The newest crime du jour to have captured popular attention is the "Craigslist Killer," so dubbed because of his fatal altercation with a woman whose massage services he had solicited via the internet bulletin board. Earlier this week, Boston police arrested a 23-year-old medical student named Philip Markoff (left) for the crime, accusing him of committing at least one other similar robbery as well.

Coverage of the crimes and arrest has been particularly heavy here in Boston. In addition to the local aspects of the case, Markoff seems like a clean-cut, high-achiever who doesn't necessarily fit the mold that many people have in mind for these kinds of crimes, Ted Bundy and other counterexamples be damned.

And, as often happens in such cases, the initial media reports have included a range of quotes from the suspect's classmates and teachers–past and present–not to mention family members. Having exhausted the factual and evidentiary angles of the story, many newspapers and TV stations seem to think that these "first-hand accounts" of the suspect will shed additional light on the case. But do we actually learn anything from such armchair diagnoses?

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I don't think so, especially since they almost always sound the same. In one of the initial stories on the arrest, the Boston Globe even provided the requisite "he wouldn't hurt a fly" line, in this case from Markoff's fiancée. The exact quote in this instance: "All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly!"

It's a common refrain. And I think it's an understandable one under the circumstances. I can imagine few greater shocks to the system than finding out that your beloved husband, son, brother, or friend has been accused of unthinkable acts. And more generally, it's comforting to rest on the assumption that our neighbors are capable of nothing worse than the sins we observe, like leaving the lids off garbage cans and parking too far from the curb.

It's therefore interesting to see the outrage and anger that some have directed towards Markoff's fiancée, whether in call-in radio shows or on internet posting boards. There's been no suggestion by police investigators that she had any inkling of what her future husband was allegedly up to, but even that fact has been used against her in some quarters as evidence that was living a life of unconscionable denial long before he was arrested.

Perhaps.

But perhaps she's just the latest in a long line of people to discover that they didn't know quite as much about their partners, parents, children, friends, and co-workers as they thought they did. Assuming that the evidence at trial winds up being even half as compelling as the case the media has already assembled against Markoff, I imagine she'll eventually come to accept the reality of the situation. After all, if you dig through enough news reports and TV interviews, you can find the original stories in which Scott Peterson's in-laws defended him as absolutely, positively uninvolved in the death of his pregnant wife Laci–that tide turned fairly quickly as time passed and once additional case details emerged.

It's difficult if not impossible for us to grasp the situation in which Markoff's fiancée now finds herself. Instead, we fall back on the same cognitive tendency that we fault her for: an overdependence on the idea of stable, predictable disposition. Just as she is confident that the Philip she knew from dinners out and walks on the beach is the same gentle soul that inhabited his person 24/7, so do we quickly leap to paint her as out of touch, overly naïve, or callous to the fate of the crime victims.

There's an allure to this idea of stable disposition, and it helps explain our relative blindness to the power of situations, as I've discussed in previous posts. But people are notoriously complex animals, despite our preference for reducing each other to easily delineated personality types. It's a reassuring thought, this idea that we can accurately predict what the others in our life are and are not capable of, but it's not always realistic.

Barring some unforeseen twist in the Craigslist Killer investigation, Markoff's fiancée appears to be just another one of his victims. No, not in the same way as the woman who was murdered, of course, or the other victims who were robbed. But at the very least, she's lost the future life she had envisioned and planned for. And if the allegations of violence and gambling debts currently levied against her fiancé prove true, then she should probably count herself lucky that he was caught before ever putting her in harm's way, whether directly or indirectly.

So I'm never swayed when I read a "he wouldn't hurt a fly" quote, but I'm not angered by it either. It represents an expected and understandable reaction to a jarringly surprising turn of events. It's no more convincing a statement than "This isn't what it you think it is," "I don't mean to sound sexist, but..." or "Mr. Madoff says the check is in the mail." We just don't learn that much from such a normatively expected response. Now, a comment like, "actually, I always sort of thought my sister might be a serial killer," that tells us something interesting and unexpected, whether about the subject or speaker of the statement.

I had one other reaction upon reading news reports of the arrest in the Craigslist Killer case. I realized that my wife sees me swat flies all the time. You see, I take it personally when the freeloaders come into our house, and I dispose of them with great zeal and relish. It dawns on me that I'm doubly screwed if I ever get arrested, so I plan to keep to the straight and narrow.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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