A study by psychologists at the University of Lincoln shows that the concept of loving one’s neighbor might be “hard-wired” into the brain (ScienceDaily).
In an effort to avoid the ethical concerns of the famous study done by Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, who demonstrated that individuals were less likely to deliver an electric shock to someone if they were in the same room, a group of psychologists looked to game shows.
After watching 72 episodes of the UK show, The Weakest Link, and examining the voting patterns, they discovered that contestants “show a strong reluctance to vote for their direct neighbour — a pattern they called ‘neighbour avoidance effect’.” “Spatial proximity” influenced “players’ decision-making.” In other words, it’s hard to trash the guy standing next to you.
The original Milgram study showed that when someone was in another room, the person delivering electric shock was less inhibited. So as long as we don’t talk to them, see their faces, or discover their humanity, it is easier to treat others negatively. It is easier to dehumanize those we don’t know, that is, to create stories that are befitting our treatment of others.
In reading this new study, I immediately thought of drone attacks, which are still all over the news. In his recent piece at The Atlantic (“We’re Killing Alleged Militants Too Quickly to Reliably Determine Guilt“), Conor Friedersdorf notes that “in Pakistan alone, drones have killed more than one person per day since President Obama took office.”
“The Obama Administration would have us believe,” writes Friedersdorf, “that it is able to determine the guilt of people in remote tribal areas of Pakistan so quickly and efficiently that it can kill more than one per day on average with a high level of assurance that every last one of them poses a threat to the United States.”
There are benefits to drone attacks; they reduce military casualties and they help to eliminate the need for large armies. Just in terms of practicality, there is little doubt that in a world where war appears inevitable and bad guys will never cease to exist, reducing deaths and lower costs are important factors. One might add, however, that in light of this study that drones are also easy on the conscience, perhaps too easy. It is easier to use the militant label on under-investigated groups when they are on the other side of the world. Otherwise well-intentioned individuals can easily lose themselves in the stories they create about others. Add executive privilege to that and the President may have little opportunity to be confronted on that desensitization.
There is a cognitive dissonance between the Obama who decided to end Guantanamo and the Obama who has created a kill list, the drones help bring dissonance reduction and ease the conscience. And the automation of it all gives it the convenience of a credit card. We’ll pay for it later, but for now, we can rest in knowing that somewhere, we killed someone that may or may not be an enemy of the state.