Back in graduate school, Steve Lowry and I used to sit around on the campus mall discussing philosophical issues and visually overdosing on all the beautiful women walking by. At first glance, Steve and I appeared rather similar; we were both tall, long-haired, bell-bottomed white male graduate students in clinical psychology, we both loved to play the guitar, and we both enjoyed discussing topics like phenomenology and existentialism late into the night. But we actually came from radically different cultural backgrounds. Steve had grown up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Ohio and claimed he had never been in a fistfight in his life. Having grown up in a New York neighborhood with more than its fair share of lower-class Irish and Italian hooligans, I had a hard time believing him. There were periods during my childhood when I had a fight every day. And I was surrounded by people who were quite a bit tougher than me, and had a father in prison and plenty of friends and relatives who would eventually end up there as well.
My stepfather Bob had middle-class aspirations, and I can thank him for getting me out of Queens and away from a crowd of ruffians. But Bob had been raised in the same neighborhood, so even after we moved out to the land of Ozzie and Harriet, his idea of parental advice still involved the occasional punch in the jaw. Bob was a proud member of the National Rifle Association and had a gun rack hanging prominently in the kitchen; when he got drunk, he would lose his otherwise pleasant disposition and threaten to shoot my brother and me if we tried to intervene in one of his battles with our mother. (She also had a taste for liquor, as well as a special knack for egging Bob on.)
One evening my stepfather was especially out of control and came at me with fists flying, shouting threats against my life. In a scene from the movies, I managed to land the best punch of my pugilistic career—a square hit on his jaw that sent him flying across the room, where he fell unconscious on the floor. My brother looked at me, pointed to the guns Bob had just been threatening us with, and asked, “Should we kill him?” I actually had to think about it for a minute, before I said, without complete resolve, “Nah, we’d better not.”
So with this background, I was no stranger to thoughts of homicide. Indeed, when my colleague Norbert Schwarz expressed doubt at my assumption that everyone had homicidal fantasies, I thought he was putting me on. When I surveyed the other colleagues with whom Norbert and I were eating lunch, though, they were split: Some claimed they had never had a homicidal fantasy, but the others accused them of denial. For experimental psychologists, this kind of disagreement means there is an interesting hypothesis waiting to be tested…
What’s above is an excerpt from Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. Those personal experiences led Virgil Sheets and I to conduct a series of studies on the prevalence of homicidal fantasies, and what triggers them. You may not be surprised at the prevalence of homicidal fantasies in men (the vast majority of guys admitted at least one), but we were surprised by their prevalence in women (a slightly smaller majority, but a majority nevertheless).
We further explored the links between sex and violence in some research I conducted with Vlad Griskevicius, Josh Tybur, Steve Gangestad, Elaine Perea, and Jenessa Shapiro. The paper reporting that research is called “Aggress to Impress,” and we open up with a revealing story about a guy who walked up to Charles Barkley in a bar and dumped a glass of icewater on his head. Barkley’s response was to pick the guy up and throw him through a plate glass window. When a reporter asked Barkley whether he had any regrets, he said: “I regret we weren’t on a higher floor.”
Although law enforcement officials refer to episodes like Barkley’s barroom conflict as “trivial altercations,” Margo Wilson and Martin Daly note that they are anything but trivial. They are about a man’s position in the local status hierarchy, and for a man loss of status could mean a reduction in his value as a mate.
See “slugging your way to the top” for a related discussion of these issues.
To read the original research, check out the articles below:
Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J.M., Gangestad, S.W., Perea, E.F., Shapiro, J.R., & Kenrick, D.T. (2009). Aggress to impress: Hostility as an evolved context-dependent strategy. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 96, 980-994.
Kenrick, D.T., & Sheets, V. (1994). Homicidal fantasies. Ethology and Sociobiology, 14, 231-246.
Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, risk-taking, and violence: The young male syndrome. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 59–73.
To see a 3 min. video in which I talk about my own near homicidal encounter and how it led to a program of research, check out: