The battle of Bunker Hill

Up close and personal: the battle of Bunker Hill, depicted by John Trumbull

Colonial commanders at the Battle of Bunker Hill famously urged their soldiers to withhold their fire until they could see the whites of the eyes of the British soldiers. This nugget of American history contains a bit of irony: When their targets were closer, the soldiers might have saved ammunition through greater accuracy, but they probably also found it emotionally more difficult to shoot and kill people whose eyes they could see clearly.

In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, retired US Army lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman elaborates on the conditions that enable killing in war and everyday society. He writes, “At close range, the resistance to killing a person is tremendous. When one looks an opponent in the eye, and knows that he is young or old, scared or angry, it is not possible to deny that the individual about to be killed is much like oneself.” Grossman quotes a Vietnam Special Forces veteran: “When you get up close and personal, where you can hear ’em scream and see ’em die, it’s a bitch.”[1]

As I wrote in my previous post, distance of almost any kind—physical, emotional, social—makes violent, destructive acts easier. And modern technologies can create a lot of distance between us and others affected by our actions. We can call this “action at a distance.” Consider the drone operators sitting in Nevada killing people in Pakistan.

Milgram's proximate condition

Bucking the trend with close-up violence

My previous post explains how Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments confirm this relationship between distance and destruction. The subjects in his experiments notoriously (and shockingly!) were willing to inflict great pain and possibly permanent harm or even death on victims. But they became less willing to do so as the victim was moved progressively closer to them.[2]

At first blush it may seem obvious that being further from somebody or something would facilitate violence against them. But why should this be so if you have full knowledge of the consequences in both cases—close up and remote? Fortunately, Milgram bequeathed us with a framework to begin to understand why distance can make us more destructive, consisting of six factors.[3]

Empathic Cues

When someone suffering from our choices is more remote, the suffering remains abstract and has a certain unreal quality. This conceptual reality is more difficult to respond to emotionally. Milgram gives the example of a bombardier who knows his weapons will inflict suffering and death, yet his knowledge is “divested of affect and does not arouse in him an emotional response to the suffering that he causes.”[4] Visual cues of the victim’s suffering can trigger empathic responses and provide a more complete grasp of the victim’s situation. Such empathic responses curb destructive behavior by being unpleasant. Empathic cues work, of course, with nonhuman others as well. You might not enjoy looking close-up into the eyes of the pig being slaughtered for your dinner.

People can have similar experiences even with things that don’t have eyes, such as trees, as I sometimes do. You can feel solidarity with their striving in the world or simply with their beauty. Proximity and face-to-face encounters encourage empathy and provide the context for all sorts of genuine emotional connections to arise, including those that lead to caring and nurturing choices. Ervin Staub, a pioneer in research into group violence, writes that members of alienated groups such as Israelis and Palestinians must spend time living, working, and playing together. Then, connections of caring and cooperation can emerge.[5]

Denial and narrowing of the cognitive field

Milgram writes, “When the victim is close, it is more difficult to exclude him phenomenologically.”[6] Simply put, in more remote conditions, it’s easier to exclude a victim and his suffering from thought. In the most proximate conditions, inclusion in the immediate visual field renders the victim continuously salient and harder to ignore.[7] In Milgram’s experiments, when subjects could see the victim, they often averted their eyes.[8] Clearly, when our victims lie outside our cognitive fields, when we don’t even know they exist, their well-being can’t be considered, regardless of whether they’re human. It’s easier to not think about high-tech workers’ bodies becoming contaminated with chemicals[9] or forests being clear-cut when you can’t see them and can easily forget they even exist.

A related problem is that distancing and the narrowing of our cognitive fields opens us up to manipulation. Political commentators, partisan politicians, and others can step in a create confusion when we don't have direct information. Today, opponents of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, have managed to sow lots of confusion and misinformation. Granted the following interviews are convenience polls done for the sake of comedy, but I do think they hint at the success of misinformation campaigns that prey on our lack of knowledge of important legislation.


 Reciprocal fields

In Milgram’s proximate (up-close) experimental conditions, not only can the subject observe the victim, but the actions of the subject are now under scrutiny by the victim. When the victim witnesses the subject’s actions, it may bring about shame or guilt for the subject, an emotional response that can block harmful action.

That’s one reason why victims of firing squads are blindfolded: to cause less stress not only for the victim but also for the executioner. The same goes for executioners’ hoods. Being part of the victim’s field of awareness may make subjects more self-conscious, embarrassed, and inhibited in causing destructive violence. Reciprocal fields are defeated by distances or barriers that prevent the victim from seeing the actor.

Title page of Honoré de Balzac's The Executioner (1831).

Making violence easier.

Perhaps this factor is most relevant when the victim is human. But consider also the powerful effect of the gaze of animals besides humans. I’ll never forget the frightened, desperate look in the eyes of a very sick dog I’d taken to the vet as the doctors approached her to draw blood. It was hard to resist the urge to stop them.

Experienced unity of act

Under distant conditions, it’s more difficult for the subject to be aware of the connection between his actions and the consequences for the victim. The act and its repercussions are physically separated. The two events of pressing a lever and protests in another room are in correlation but “lack a compelling unity.” In more proximate conditions, this unity is more easily achieved.[10] The experienced unity of an act is disrupted when actors are alienated from consequences across space or time. There’s little “experienced unity” between buying a ream of paper and forests falling to be made into paper.

Incipient group-formation

Milgram said that we tend to form alliances with those physically closest to us. So in the obedience experiments, when the victim was further away, the subjects formed implicit alliances with the experimenter, who was closer. When the victim was closer, the subjects could more easily enter into tacit alliances with him. When the victim was more remote, he was truly an outsider standing alone, physically and psychologically. Subjects of the obedience experiments were then more likely to apply what they thought could be lethal shocks.

In the modern world nature stands alone every day, far away from us and our daily lives. So it’s hard to consider its needs—and easy to make choices we know are causing damage. It’s time to close the gap and to begin to open our eyes to see how our actions are affecting nature.

My book: Invisible Nature

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My environmental blogFinding the Human Place in Nature. 

Read more of my postsThe Green Mind.


[1] Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), p. 117, 118, 308.

[2] Much of this discussion is based on Kenneth Worthy, “Modern  Institutions,  Phenomenal  Dissociations,  and  Destructiveness toward Humans and the Environment,” Organization & Environment 21, no. 2 (2008) and chapter 3 of Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment(Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013).

[3] Stanley Milgram, “Some Conditions  of  Obedience  and  Disobedience  to  Authority,”  Human  Relations  18,  no.  1 (1965).

[4] Stanley Milgram, “Some Conditions  of  Obedience  and  Disobedience  to  Authority,”  Human  Relations  18,  no.  1 (1965).

[5] Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge;  New  York:  Cambridge  University  Press,  1989),  pp.  240,  274.

[6] Milgram, “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority,” p. 63.

[7] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), pp. 37–38.

[8] Milgram, “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority,” p. 61.

[9] As I discuss in chapter 1 of my book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment.

[10] Milgram, Obedience to Authority, pp. 38–39.

About the Author

Kenneth Worthy, Ph.D.

Kenneth Worthy, Ph.D., is the author of Invisible Nature, and a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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