When people think of the imagination put to use, often what they think of are works of fiction. Fiction is enormously important in the world. The average person spends about six hours every day consuming fiction of one kind or another. And that's not all bad, because fiction allows us to climb into someone else's head and see what their life is like. In fact, scholars have argued that the introduction of novels to the general public has made people more empathic and, well, better.
In this post I'll discuss one of my favorite plays, Little Shop of Horrors, and use it to demonstrate the concept of gradualism as applied to commiting immoral acts. I give away the plot here, so if you don't want it spoiled, stop reading now.
I'm referring to the plot in the play, which has a tragic ending, as opposed to the released version of the 1986 film, which has a happy ending. I'm writing about Little Shop now because soon the DVD will be released that discusses (but does not show) the alternate, tragic ending that was replaced when audiences were displeased by it. Indeed, for a comedy, it's pretty dark. Here's how the story goes:
Seymour is a poor employee at a flower shop who has a crush on his co-worker, Audrey. He happens upon an unusual plant and he discovers that it lives on human blood.The plant starts earning the struggling Skid Row flower shop money, but he must keep feeding the plant blood to keep it alive.
The play demonstrates a fundamental trait of human beings: we pay attention to new things, and habituate to the old. Seymour first reluctantly cuts himself to feed the plant. The plant, which can talk, convinces him that Audrey's abusive boyfriend Orin deserves to die because he is such a horrible person. The death is a murder of omission-- he could have saved him, but didn't, which in our moral psychology is must less bad than actually killing someone (this is called omission bias). He feeds the dead body to the plant. His boss Mushnik gets suspicious and confronts Seymour, who tells him that the receipts are kept in the plant. Mushnik climbs in and is devoured. Effectively, Seymour murders him.
The plot, and the plant, turn Seymour into a murderer with a clever mix of reasoning, self-interest, and most importantly, a slowly growing sequence of crimes, each one of which never seems sufficiently different from what he's already done before. Each request of the plant pushes him just a little more toward murder: cut yourself, allow an evil person to die, lure a person to his death.
Even though the crimes are getting more serious, Seymour probably feels the same, low-level anxiety and moral indecision throughout, but it's never quite enough to get him to stop. In reality it might take a person longer, but I'm impressed that the play manages to get even this level of moral range in the course of two hours.
As Steven Pinker says in his excellent 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (kindle location 12547):
"A second mechanism of moral disengagement is gradualism. People can slide into barbarities a baby step at a time that they would never undertake in a single plunge, because at no point does it feel like they are doing anything terribly different."
In the play the plant lures Audrey in and mortally harms her. Seymour finally tries to kill the plant, but is devoured himself. The plant has been spread all around the country because Seymour signed a document allowing a company to sell it. The bloodthirsty plants take over the world. The End. I know it sounds pretty grim from my recap of the plot, but trust me, the play is very funny.
In the movie he saves Audrey and electrocutes the plant to death. The ending image shows Seymour and Audrey moving into a new house, happy together. I hated the ending of the movie, partially, I'm sure, because it didn't fit what I expected. My father invested in a Boston production of the show and I saw it over and over in my early teens, and listened to the tape endlessly. When people see two versions of something, they usually perfer the one they were exposed to first (Pandelaere, Millet & van den Bergh, 2010).
But if I were to put a reason to it it would be this: I tend to like cautionary tales, where people give in to evil temptations and get punished for it. In the film version, Seymour allows a lot of people to be killed to get fame and love, and then at the end... gets the fame and love. This guy is a murderer who only turned on the plant when it tried to hurt someone he loved. To me that makes the story kind of pointless at best and morally irresponsible at worst. What is the moral of the film? That you can make a deal with the devil, do terrible things, and then get out of it and have all your dreams come true?
Why do people like tales in which the bad get punished? It very well could be because of a piece of our moral psychology called cheater detection.
We have lived in complex societies in which rules must be followed for the greater good. When we perceive someone as taking advantage of the system, we get a righteous anger. That's our evolutionary "cheater detection" mechanism. When we see it in a story, the same detector is set off. When we see people "get what they deserve," it's satisfying.
We experience fiction and learn things about the real world, even if we don't mean to (Marsh & Fazio, 2006). It can make us inappropriately terrified (zombies), but it can also demonstrate in a very visceral way how our minds work, ana make us more empathic to other people's problems and lives.
I will further discuss why we find stories like this satisfying in my forthcoming book, Riveted: Why We Love Art and Ideas.
Pandelaere, M., Millet, K., & Van den Bergh, B. (2010). Madonna or Don McLean? The effect of order of exposure on relative liking. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 20(4), 442-451.
Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of our Nature Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.