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A study into 'senseless violence': Preserving sacred values and moral convictions

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We applied Tetlock et al.’s (2000) Sacred Value Protection Model (SVPM) and Skitka et al.’s (2005) moral conviction approach to the issue of “senseless” violence in The Netherlands. Participants read a bogus newspaper article in which a victim was
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  In: Handbook of Social Justice ISBN 978-1-60741-713-2 Editors: Augustus Kakanowski and Marijus Narusevich © Nova Science Publishers, Inc. Chapter 10 A   S TUDY INTO “S ENSELESS ”   V IOLENCE :   P RESERVING S ACRED V ALUES AND M ORAL C ONVICTIONS    Hein F. M. Lodewijkx    and Mariska Dijke School of Psychology, The Netherlands Open University, Breda, The Netherlands A BSTRACT   We applied Tetlock et al.’s (2000) Sacred Value Protection Model (SVPM) and Skitka et al.’s (2005) moral conviction approach to the issue of “senseless” violence in The Netherlands. Participants read a bogus newspaper article in which a victim was stabbed to death and in which different transgressions of sacred values were manipulated. Consistent with hypotheses, we found that pooled strong / ambiguous vs. weak transgression conditions increased people’s senselessness perceptions and their moral outrage and cleansing responses towards the incident. The findings offer fruitful insights into the processes that lead people to label violent events as involving senseless acts of aggression, including their moral reactions to such incidents. Keywords:  Moral responses; moral convictions, sacred values; senseless violence I NTRODUCTION   “Senseless” violence can be defined as an expressive form of aggression that is characterized by its incidental nature and by the instantaneous, situational determined, erratic way in which the victims are chosen by the offenders (Lodewijkx, Wildschut, Nijstad, Savenije, & Smit, 2001; Van den Brink, 2001). Theorizing and research into this field is slowly progressing, but is still scarce. Recent developments indicate that terror management ∗  Correspondence: Hein Lodewijkx, School of Psychology, The Netherlands Open University, Stationsweg 3A, 4811 AX, Breda, The Netherlands.Phone: 31.76.5711608. Fax: 31.76.5715424. E-mail: Hein.Lodewijkx@ou.nl (work) or lodex@ziggo.nl (home).  Hein F. M. Lodewijkx and Mariska Dijke 2 theory (Hirschberger, 2006; Landau, Johns, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Martens, Goldenberg, & Solomon, 2004, Exp. 5), the Sacred Value Protection Model  (SVPM; Tetlock, Kristel, Elson, Green, & Lerner, 2000; Tetlock, 2003; see also Lodewijkx, Kersten & VanZomeren, 2008) with related moral convictions (Skitka, Bauman, & Sargis, 2005) might offer fruitful approaches to reach insight into this phenomenon. The latter two approaches indicate that violations of community-shared “sacred” values, with accompanying threats to moral convictions may be involved in people’s labeling of random aggressive events as “senseless” events. In this experiment we aim to examine SVPM predictions relating to this labeling  process. S ACRED V ALUES ,   M ORAL C ONVICTIONS ,  AND M ORAL R ESPONSES   Events involving “senseless” violence often cause strong emotional reactions among  people, including societal protest (Lodewijkx et al., 2008). From a normative, humane point of view, the violent death of any person should have a similar emotional impact on us, irrespective of, for instance, the conditions under which the violence occurred and regardless of the status or attributes of the victims or the offenders. Yet, it is striking that some of these violent killings do not attract much media attention and cause far less societal debate (e.g., the killing of someone in a drug affair) compared to others. Besides, some of these incidents are subjectively labeled as involving “meaningless” acts of aggression, whereas others are not. The question is: “Why?” The SVPM and the related moral conviction approach provide some theoretical answers to this query by proposing that people are strongly motivated to protect their sacred values and moral convictions in the face of moral threats. Such threats are induced by perceiving violations of these unassailable sacred truths and related convictions (e.g., Skitka et al., 2005). Moral convictions pertain to “strong and absolute beliefs that something is right or wrong, moral or immoral” and they are “experienced as sui generis , that is, as unique, special and in a class of their own” (ibid  ., p. 896). People are said to have a moral mandate if they have a strong attitude, which is entrenched in moral conviction (Mullen & Skitka, 2006). It can be argued that attitudes concerning the harming or killing of innocent  persons (as is the case in “senseless” violent incidents) refer to such moral mandates and convictions, and that they are associated with basic values in people’s lifes. Sacred values are defined “as any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values” (Tetlock et al., 2000, p. 853). Examples are the buying and selling of human body parts for medical transplant operations or the selling of  babies for adoption purposes. Regarding violence, a sacred value transgression may consist of murdering persons without provocation, for money, or for futile tangible (“secular”) goods, such as an mp3-player, as recently happened in Brussels, Belgium (the murder on Joe van Holsbeeck). In his study on violence in The Netherlands, Van den Brink (2001, p. 330) argues that one general factor prevails in many of the Dutch senseless violence incidents — people’s impression that the harming or killing in these incidents took place for the mere “fun” of it, or for “kicks”. This would mean that, whenever people perceive such properties in a violent incident, they would regard it as involving a strong transgression of a sacred value,  Senseless Violence 3 threatening their moral convictions and inducing senselessness perceptions. This argument is key to our study and it will be examined empirically. According to the SVPM, whenever people perceive such transgressions two motivated responses are triggered to protect their sacred values and associated moral convictions:  Moral outrage  and moral cleansing . Moral outrage concerns the expression of the limits of what is morally and socially acceptable to people, and what is not. Driven by anger, people desire to denigrate the offender of the sacred value and they want to strengthen the moral boundaries to future threats. Moral outrage may concern, among others, angry, punitive reactions directed at offenders (Lodewijkx et al., 2007; Skitka, Baumann, & Mullen, 2004; Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock et al., 2000). In contrast, moral cleansing is a more fearful response (Skitka et al., 2004). It has been shown to be associated with personal distress in cases of violence (Lodewijkx et al., 2008), and, in that sense, it is more self-directed compared to the moral outrage reaction. Moral cleansing further concerns (re-)affirming one’s commitment to the sacred value and one’s solidarity with the moral community. Breaking up friendship ties with a person who is accused of a violent assault constitutes an example of such a response. Besides perceptions of senselessness, these two moral responses will serve as dependent variables in this study. In order to examine SVPM and moral conviction hypotheses we exposed observers to a  bogus newspaper article in which they read that a victim was stabbed to death. As outlined above, Van den Brink (2001) argued that the violence in “senseless” violent incidents in The  Netherlands is often perceived by residents as an instance in which offenders seem to commit violence against persons for the mere sake of committing violence, or for the mere “kicks” of it. Related to this, Baumeister, Bushman and Campbell (2000) propose that the frustration of narcissistic tendencies —that is, self-esteem that is based upon the conviction that one is superior to others— is an important determinant of the impulsive-aggressive outbursts of the (often relatively young) perpetrators in cases of violence. It can be argued that Van den Brink’s “kicks” impressions basically imply that observers attribute such egotistic, narcissistic motives to offenders in an attempt to make sense of their behavior. In combination, this would mean that observers perceive harming or killing an innocent person as a strong transgression of a sacred value and as a threat to their moral conviction, whenever offenders perform such behaviors (a) randomly, wilfully and gratuitously, (b) without apparent reasons (except, perhaps, for attributed egotistic motives), or (c) without any clear  provocation that justifies the subsequent extreme aggression. Consistent with these criteria, we argue that such strong transgression perceptions may be induced by depicting a murder as one that involves so-called “  fun killing ” on the part of the offenders. We expect that in such a condition observers’ senselessness and moral reactions will be stimulated compared to conditions in which such transgression perceptions are less strongly induced. The SVPM further proposes that, whenever transgressions are perceived as part of ongoing, functional (or “secular”) wheelings and dealings between victims and offenders, this will trigger less strong moral responses. An example would be when a victim and an offender are involved in an altercation as part of a drug affair, a situation which would incriminate the victim. In such cases, Weiner’s (1980) rational-normative attribution model predicts that, if observers recognize that victims are responsible for their predicament, this will evoke strong victim culpability tendencies. Victims who are recognized to have no control over, or have no responsibility for their predicament, elicit positive reactions. Consistent with Weiner’s model, Lodewijkx et al. (2001, also VanZomeren & Lodewijkx, 2005) indeed found that people labelled the violence against a victim as more sensible and more deserved in the presence  Hein F. M. Lodewijkx and Mariska Dijke 4 rather than the absence of victim-incriminating circumstances. However, in his culpable control model, Alicke (2000) proposes that motivational processes may sometimes bias observers’ rational-normative attributions to explain events in their (social) environments by “exaggerating the actor’s volitional or causal control, by lowering their evidential standards for blame, or by seeking information to support their blame attribution” ( ibid  ., p. 558). Such motivational biases may be activated for instance by just-world preserving processes (Hafer & Bègue, 2005), and — as revealed by recent research — also by terror management  processes (Hirschberger, 2006). The latter research showed that existential anxiety, activated  by mortality salience processes, led observers to unjustly condemn innocent victims for their misfortune compared to less innocent victims. We attempted to induce such motivationally  biased attribution processes in our study by informing observers that a killing of a victim might   be due to a criminal settlement. In such victim-incriminating circumstances, research has revealed that observers will tend to heuristically apply the corresponding bias, leading them to infer that “bad outcomes happen to bad people” ( cf.  Lerner, 1998, p. 253). We expect therefore that in such a condition observers will perceive the stabbing of a victim as a weak   transgression of a sacred value, leading to lowered senselessness and moral reactions. What will happen if observers have no specific information about a violent killing? That is, if no clear cues are given concerning the circumstances, victims, or offenders, which would allow, for example, for the heuristic operation of corresponding biases to make sense of the aggression inflicted upon the victim? We note that such kind of ambiguity often hovers around senseless violence incidents, in particular when it concerns the initial ways in which the media tend to cover such events (for The Netherlands, see Vasterman, 2001, 2005). This is the reason why we created such an ambiguous transgression condition in our study. Observers’ reactions to such a condition might be three-fold. First, their reactions might resemble the reactions to the strong transgression of a sacred value condition. This implies that, if no differences between observers’ reactions to these two conditions emerge, they  presumably will have projected egotistic, “fun killing” properties into the ambiguous situation. This means that observers will also perceive the murder in the ambiguous condition as a strong transgression of a sacred value, stimulating senselessness and moral reactions in  both conditions. Second, heuristically they may apply victim-related, corresponding biases, leading to tendencies to (falsely) incriminate the victim. If this is true, this means that there will be no differences between observers’ reactions to the ambiguous and the weak transgression of a sacred value condition. Compared to the strong transgression condition, observers’ senselessness and moral responses will be lower in the latter two conditions. Third, it is also possible that both processes are applied. If this is the case, observers’ responses will  probably take on intermediate positions in-between the strong and weak transgression conditions. Hypotheses However, in view of the societal debates, protests and media hypes that often follow the ambiguous media coverage of violent incidents in The Netherlands for instance; we believe the first alternative to be the most valid. Therefore, we expect the strongest differences on the dependent variables to occur between the strong and ambiguous vs. the weak transgression condition. The latter condition can be regarded as a control condition. We further expect  Senseless Violence 5  positive relationships between the dependent variables — stronger senselessness perceptions will be associated with stronger moral outrage and cleansing responses. M ETHOD   Design and Participants We examined these hypotheses with a three-level ( Transgression: Strong vs. Ambiguous vs. Weak)  between-subjects design. 1  Participants read a vignette, describing an incident that factually took place in The Netherlands. It was written in the form of a bogus newspaper article, describing the stabbing of a young man (see below). Participants than checked the items of a questionnaire in response to the vignette presented to them. Participants (  N   = 124) were recruited from the student population of large urban vocational school (VMBO), located in Breda (The Netherlands) and its environments, and were randomly assigned to conditions (See Dijke, 2007, for details). Preliminary analyses revealed that four participants had outliers on various dependent variables, due to response tendencies, and they were discarded, leaving  N   = 120 to perform analyses. Participants’ average age was 18.4 years ( SD  = 1.15, range 16 to 22 years). Of these participants, 109 (90.8%) were male. Procedure The text of the vignette in the  ambiguous transgression condition  ran as follows: Monday, 2 October, 2006 —Gilze-Rijen— Twenty-four police-officers are now investigating the violent death of 21-year old [victim name]. He was stabbed to death in the night from Friday to Saturday, last weekend. The stabbing took place in a park, located near the Beverdam and the Wildbaan in Gilze-Rijen. The severely injured victim was found in the  park at 3.30 AM, Saturday morning. The victim deceased shortly after he had been transported to a nearby hospital. The victim owned an apartment close by the park [...]. Later that Saturday, the police-officers meticulously explored the vicinity in search of the murder weapon. They found it in a small pond, situated in the park. Local residents are now  being interviewed by the police for further investigation. So far, the investigations yielded no clues about the identity or whereabouts of the offender(s). In the strong transgression condition  participants additionally read: “According to local residents, the victim, who owned an apartment close to the park, was known to be a quiet, friendly person, who would hurt no one. The police confirmed that the victim was robbed from his cell phone, ring and i-Pod. The police suspect that the stabbing was perhaps an instance of fun killing.” In the weak    transgression condition only the last sentence in the previous section was altered and participants read: “The police suspect that the stabbing was perhaps due to some kind of criminal settlement.”
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