I have a friend who, like me, is careful about managing money. Neither of us indulges much in shopping. Yet, when we get together, we both buy things we ordinarily wouldn’t and spend more than we ordinarily would, and later wonder why.

It’s that inner switch we think is firmly off when in fact it hovers halfway between on and off, ready for the right stimulus to push it toward “green.” That stimulus is unique to each of us, formed as we develop our distinct personalities. We often can’t anticipate what will switch it on when we want it off, because it exists in the inarticulate areas of our psyche.

The inner green light is an elusive subtext within our life narratives.

Being malleable and instantly ready to act has its advantages. It makes us resilient when things don’t work out as planned. We can reframe our situation or jump toward a new opportunity.

But our inner green light can also undermine our best resolutions. Anyone who’s tried to stick to a diet or exercise plan knows what I’m saying. When we face the temptation to derail our discipline, the inner green light permits us to “go ahead, eat it. Just this once. It won’t matter.” Its “yes” can have more impact than our “no.”

In a darker context, some people say “yes” to committing crimes when they’d never had such an inclination before. Criminal chemistry that erupts between two people can influence either or both toward acts neither might have done alone.

We’ll probably discover that the two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who allegedly stabbed a friend to please a fictional character had together developed an override to both reality and morality. Since this character, “Slenderman,” required a murder for gaining status, the girls decided that killing someone within his realm was acceptable behavior. Their parents were horrified, of course, which suggests that they’d taught their daughters otherwise.

Yet the girls planned it for months and repeatedly switched on their inner green light in order to prepare for it and carry it out. They stabbed their friend 19 times, just missing her heart. She survived because she managed to get help. Weier’s statement in the criminal complaint is telling: “I thought, dear god, this was really happening." They’ll probably both look back one day and wonder how they’d ever believed that murder for a make-believe character was okay.

I recently finished writing a story for Serial Killer Quarterly in which I tried to identify exactly what had happened to transform “Moors Murderer” Myra Hindley, a seemingly ordinary girl, into a woman who tolerated a sadistic child killer, Ian Brady, and even partied with him on top of the victims' graves. To many, she just seemed evil, but the subtle process of turning on her inner green light began with an ordinary infatuation.

The common story is that Brady seduced Hindley, who was just 18, and she agreed to do whatever he wanted in order to keep him as her boyfriend. By her account, Hindley had placed herself in Brady’s path because he appeared to be her ticket to an interesting life. This was something she desperately wanted.

Determined to be different from the life she saw for middle-class women around her, Hindley set herself up for someone like Brady. He believed that superior men could transcend social morality and do as they pleased. Hindley was fertile ground for this sentiment. She was fertile ground for other ways to be different as well, but Brady was the one who crossed her path.

This was the source of her inner green light. Certain that Brady was her only route to an extraordinary life, Hindley accepted his increasingly rough sexual demands and pornographic photo sessions. Because she affirmed him, Brady grew bolder. He broached the idea of murder as the act that would prove their superiority. He wanted to kill a child.

Unsure about this direction, Hindley nevertheless lured children for Brady to rape and kill. Brady tried to enlist a third partner, David Smith, but Smith’s horror over their acts led to their arrest in 1965. Apparently his inner green light was not as malleable.

Several school shooting teams were also alliances that pressured weak individuals. Clinical psychologist Peter Langman, author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, analyzed Dylan Klebold’s relationship with Eric Harris. On April 20, 1999, these two students entered their high school in Littleton, Colorado, and murdered thirteen people before killing themselves.

Langman identifies Harris as a decisive, psychopathic leader and Klebold as a follower. When Langman read Klebold’s journal, released in 2006, he found odd preoccupations and bizarre thought processes, along with feelings of isolation. This suggested a debilitating shyness. “Nobody accepting me,” Klebold wrote, “even though I want to be accepted.” He feared abandonment.

“A close reading of his journal shows a fragmented identity and a dependent personality,” says Langman. “He was floundering. Because he had no solid sense of himself, he was overly dependent on others. When his best friend found a girlfriend, it sent Dylan into a crisis.”

Desperate, Klebold transferred his attachment to Harris. “Eric’s narcissism seemed like a sense of power,” Langman continues. “It was Dylan’s salvation. It gave him an anchor. But to be acceptable to Harris, Dylan had to transform himself. There was a profound difference between who he was and who he pretended to be. To give a Nazi salute, when his background was part-Jewish, meant a profound rejection of part of his identity.”

Harris’s clarity, despite its hate-filled gloom, helped Klebold navigate a confusing world. It turned on his inner green light in a negative way. Shedding his former insecure identity, he evolved into a killer. “He might not have done what he did,” Langman concludes, “without Harris’ influence.”

We all have an inner green light, ready to flick on under the right conditions, whether as benign as a faltering resolve to exercise or as extreme as participating in crime. Yet when we act in ways that surprise, confuse or disappoint us, we can embrace these moments as contact points with our susceptibility to influence. We can learn about ourselves.

Being attuned to our own subtext gives us more control over it. When I realize that being around someone under specific conditions inspires me to do things I don’t want to do, I can change the conditions (or the friends) to reduce my vulnerability. Our inner green light can work for us or against us. Awareness is choice.

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