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"Behavioral Psychology"

The Problem: A Resistance To Killing

Much of human behavior is irrefutably linked to a mixture of operant and classical conditioning. From one perspective, grades in school and wages at work are nothing more than positive reinforcers, and grades and money are nothing more than tokens in a token economy, and the utility of behaviorism in understanding daily human behavior is significant.

Yet the purist position (which holds that behavioristic processes explain all aspects of human behavior), is generally considered to be flawed in its application to humans, since humans are able to learn by observational learning, and humans tend to strongly oppose and negate blatant attempts to manipulate them against their will. But in emergency situations, or in the preparation of individuals for emergency situations, behaviorism reigns supreme.

Those in power have always attempted to utilize the basic behavioral concepts of rewards, punishments, and repetitive training to shape or control, and in many cases they would hope, predict the responses of military and law enforcement personnel throughout history. Certainly in ancient times when there was no formal understanding of the underlying precepts of conditioning, military leaders nevertheless subjected their troops to forms of conditioning with the intention of instilling warlike responses.

Repetition played heavily in attempting to condition firing as seen in Prussian and Napoleonic drills in the loading and firing of muskets. Through thousands of repetitions it was hoped that under the stress of battle, men would simply fall back on the learned skill to continue firing at the enemy. While this may have accounted for some increase in the firing of muskets in the general direction of the enemy, statistics from the Napoleonic era do not bear out the hit ratios that would indicate success in the method, success being determined by increased kill ratios.

In tests during this era it was repeatedly demonstrated that an average of regiment of 250 men, each firing a musket at a rate of four shots per minute, could hypothetically put close to 1000 holes in a 6-foot-high by 100-foot-wide sheet of paper at a range of 25 yards. But Paddy Griffith has documented in his studies of actual Napoleonic and American Civil War battles that in many cases the actual hit ratios were as low as zero hits, with an average being approximately one or two hits, per minute, per regiment, which is less than 1% of their theoretical killing potential. While these soldiers may have been trained to fire their weapons, they had not been conditioned to kill their enemy.

In behavioral terms, to prepare (or train, or condition) a soldier to kill, the stimulus (which did not appear in their training) should have been an enemy soldier in their sights. The target behavior (which they did not practice for) should have been to accurately fire their weapons at another human being. There should have been immediate feedback when they hit a target, and there should have been rewards for performing these specific functions, or punishment for failing to do so. No aspect of this occurred in their training, and it was inevitable that such training would fail.

To truly understand the necessity for operant conditioning in this situation it must first be recognized that most participants in close-combat are literally "frightened out of their wits." Once the arrows or bullets start flying, combatants stop thinking with the forebrain (which is the part of the brain that makes us human) and thought processes localize in the midbrain, or mammalian brain, which is the primitive part of the brain that is generally indistinguishable from that of a dog or a rat. And in the mind of a dog the only thing which will influence behavior is operant conditioning.

In conflict situations the dominance of midbrain processing can be observed in the existence of a powerful resistance to killing one's own kind, a resistance that exists in every healthy member of every species. Konrad Lorenz, in his definitive book, On Aggression, notes that it is rare for animals of the same species to fight to the death. In their territorial and mating battles animals with horns will butt their heads together in a relatively harmless fashion, but against any other species they will go to the side and attempt to gut and gore. Similarly, piranha will fight one another with raps of their tails but they will turn their teeth on anything and everything else, and rattlesnakes will wrestle each other but they have no hesitation to turn their fangs on anything else. Lorenz suggests that this "non-specicidal" tendency is imprinted into the genetic code in order to safeguard the survival of the species.

One major modern revelations in the field of military psychology is the observation that this resistance to killing one's own species is also a key factor in human combat. Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall first observed this during his work as the Chief Historian of the European Theater of Operations in World War II. Based on his innovative new technique of postcombat interviews, Marshall concluded in his landmark book, Men Against Fire, that only 15 to 20% of the individual riflemen in World War II fired their weapons at an exposed enemy soldier.

Marshall's findings have been somewhat controversial, but every available parallel, scholarly study has validated his basic findings. Ardant du Picq's surveys of French officers in the 1860s and his observations on ancient battles, Keegan and Holmes' numerous accounts of ineffectual firing throughout history, Paddy Griffith's data on the extraordinarily low killing rate among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments, Stouffer's extensive World War II and postwar research, Richard Holmes' assessment of Argentine firing rates in the Falklands War, the British Army's laser reenactments of historical battles, the FBI's studies of nonfiring rates among law enforcement officers in the 1950s and 1960s, and countless other individual and anecdotal observations, all confirm Marshall's fundamental conclusion that man is not, by nature, a close-range, interpersonal killer.

The existence of this resistance can be observed in its marked absence in sociopaths who, by definition, feel no empathy or remorse for their fellow human beings. Pit bull dogs have been selectively bred for sociopathy, bred for the absence of the resistance to killing one's kind in order to ensure that they will perform the unnatural act of killing another dog in battle. Breeding to overcome this limitation in humans is impractical, but humans are very adept at finding mechanical means to overcome natural limitations. Humans were born without the ability to fly, so we found mechanisms that overcame this limitation and enabled flight. Humans also were born without the ability to kill our fellow humans, and so, throughout history, we have devoted great effort to finding a way to overcome this resistance.

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