Nonkilling Psychology: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.

Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiversity



  • This Course is based mainly on "The Psychology of Nonkilling", chapter prepared by Professor V. K. Kool (State University of New York) and Professor Rita Agrawal (Guru Nanak Dev University) for Toward a Nonkilling Paradigm (Honolulu: Center for Global Nonkilling, 2009). The Course is part of the Interdisciplinary Program on Nonkilling Studies at the School of Nonkilling Studies.

The issues concerning nonkilling have not been deeply explored and reported in the domain of psychology, especially in American psychology, in view of which Jeffrey Arnett (2008) wrote that American psychology needs to become less American as Americans constitute only five percent of the world’s population but generalize for the behavior of people in the entire world. The mere fact that the leading body of psychologists in the world, the American Psychological Association, had a division of military psychology but none for peace studies until 1990, is enough to report the state of affairs. If nonkilling is behavior--and indeed it is--then such behavior needs thorough examination in psychological research. In his recent book, Kool (2008) showed that a number of brilliant ideas and inspirations in the domain of peace and nonviolence came from other social sciences, for example, through the work of Kenneth Boulding, Elise Boulding, Gene Sharp, Galtung and others. In the field of nonkilling, Glenn Paige (2002) has inspired many scholars, including us, when he advocated that we need not focus on huge changes in our lives but take only a small step at a time to make the world a better place. Taking lead from Jainism’s ANUVRAT (anu meaning small and vrat meaning vow), Paige advocated that such small steps begin with respecting other fellow human beings, animals and nature. Earlier, he had passionately presented an outline for a center for global nonviolence (Paige, 1990)

Basically this chapter focuses on the following issues regarding the psychology of nonkilling. First and foremost, a cognitive representation of a word may not generate a proportionately dissimilar meaning when a prefix (nonkilling for our purposes here in this chapter) or a suffix is added to the word. Second, the norms of a culture may alter our view of nonkilling and contribute to its ambiguity. For example, even among the Buddhists, who are passionately nonviolent, killing is permitted for the consumption of food and rituals. Therefore, it is contended that based on a clear conception of nonkilling or its ambiguity that permits, and at the same time restricts, killing, all cultures are known to differentiate killing from nonkilling, that is, nonkilling as an ideology as opposed to nonkilling as a practical way of life. Killing in the latter case is an optional strategy only to the extent that it maximizes survival and adaptation and does not in any way tarnish the belief regarding nonkilling

Related to the above two issues is the third psychological analysis that is concerned beyond the survival and adaptation issues offered in the classic Darwinian analysis. For example, a hungry tiger indulges in killing to the extent of finding food to mitigate its hunger; otherwise, it would let animals stroll in the vicinity. Why do human beings enjoy killing? According to Ardrey (1966), we have a fascination for violence that exceeds our understanding or evaluation of our need to be violent. Waging a war and its consequences give human beings an enormous thrill and results in consequences that are way beyond their imagination. The post-Darwinian analysis will be highlighted in this chapter to show how our adaptation efforts expanded and we began to engage in behaviors that have served us beyond our needs of survival. Further, there is a section on adopting vegetarianism—a pattern of behavior that brings ideology and practice of nonkilling salient and is likely to bring nonkilling close to our heart and mind. We will focus on the work of Melanie Joy (2008) and Carol Adams (2003) whose ideas reflect on the behavior of people who strongly stand for the sanctity of life not only for their own sake but also for all forms of life and for protecting our environment. The last section of this chapter will focus on the neurological correlates of nonkilling.

Let us begin with the issue of the prefix “non” in nonkilling.

The implications of prefix “non” in nonkilling

An important issue concerning “Non-killing” is the prefix “non” which, in our opinion, is potentially similar to the problem of understanding most concepts that tend to generate a negative or positive value: hazardous versus nonhazardous, threatening versus nonthreatening, aggression versus nonaggression, etc. Elsewhere, one of the authors, Kool (2008), pointed out that violence and nonviolence cannot be considered to be mirror images. Thus if oppression by a military regime enforces peace, such an absence of violence does not constitute “nonviolence”, for nonviolence has a broader and richer connotation that involves each of the following (with implications for nonkilling in the present context):

  • Peacekeeping that is often enforced by a third party in a conflict. For nonkilling: legal bodies restraining believers and nonbelievers in capital punishment—a controversy that erupts when a criminal is set for death.
  • Peacemaking that is aimed at removing tension between the two parties.

For nonkilling: taking steps to understand divergent viewpoints regarding (non)killing.

  • Peacebuilding that involves constituting new efforts to eliminate or minimize a conflict.

For nonkilling: demonstrating how a killer could be transformed into a normal, good human being.

When Gandhi used the word “AHIMSA” meaning nonviolence, it was considered by many scholars to be the mere opposite of “HIMSA” which means violence. The prefix “a” in HIMSA reversed the features, that is, from violence to nonviolence. However, according to Bondurant (1965), understanding the Sanskrit word, AHIMSA, has deeper implications because it naturally involves understanding and love.

Research studies show that semantic differences associated with the use of a prefix or a suffix may fail to generate cognitions of equal and opposite magnitude in the same individual, that is, they may lead to a misperception, misjudgment or misunderstanding (Kool, 1993). With change in usage of language or with translation from one language to another, the cognitive representation of such concepts would become highly vulnerable and be prone to elicit divergence in conceptualization.

Further, the use of a prefix or suffix is likely to generate intra- and inter-individual differences in the conceptualization of a concept. Intra-individual differences refer to the capacity of an individual to perceive and evaluate the original word. For example, compare hazardous material with that of nonhazardous material and you will find that nonhazardous does not necessarily mean something good for health much the same way as peacekeeping means establishment of peace that could be very fragile. Remember the difference between peacekeeping and peacebuilding that we had cited earlier in this chapter. Inter-individual differences focus on how members of two communities differ in their assessment of nonkilling. Both President Reagan and Pope Paul received bullets, but for the former, the course of law was the reasonable solution as compared to the Pope who had forgiven—and even embraced-- the adversary. There are vast differences in the ways in which communities view either killing or nonkilling.

In terms of the above, killing and nonkilling are not simply opposite in meaning. Nonkilling would involve not merely sparing a life that could have been taken away even in such justified cases as war, but also to build conditions that could promote respect for life, love and coexistence. When Charles Roberts killed Amish children and himself on October 2, 2006 in Pennsylvania, instead of asking for police protection and showing revenge, the Amish community raised a substantially large amount of money to help the family of the killer. They showed exemplary compassion and forgiving. From the scene of the Oscar award movie, Gandhi, I recall that when a Hindu complained to Gandhi that all the members of his family had been killed by Muslim militants during the India-Pakistan partition and wanted to know how he should treat a Muslim boy in his custody, Gandhi suggested very calmly to raise this boy as a good Muslim in his family, so that the boy could get a chance to grow as a decent Muslim. Killing this boy might worsen the situation and would in no way be helpful. Just as a killing could be expressed in its ugly form, Gandhi was stretching nonkilling to the highest levels of morality. From the point of view of stages of morality, Kohlberg (1976) would classify Gandhi’s behavior as “postconventional” morality, the highest level of moral order, that leads to the creation of a new socio-moral environment and an exemplary ethical behavior that is over and above the existing norms of a community.

In short, killing and nonkilling have different cognitive representations in the minds of people. Whom to kill and whom not to kill? Hindus consider cows as sacred as they believe that just like a mother, a cow provides milk and nutrition. A dog or cat owner believes that her pet is like a family member and therefore she refrains from eating cat or dog’s meat, but the members of South Asian communities view it differently. Consider the dialogue reported in BOX 1. Even highly educated people have trouble understanding the seriousness with which a prefix can change the intensity of meaning of a concept.

BOX 1. (Non)violence

At an interview for a faculty position, I was asked about my favorite area of research work. The following dialogue will give you an idea of what happens with the use of a prefix or a suffix. Interviewer: Will you please tell me your favorite field of research? Candidate: Psychology of nonviolence. Interviewer: I have never heard of this field. Is there something called nonindustrial psychology or nonhealth psychology? Candidate: Are you a vegetarian? Interviewer: No, I am a nonvegetarian. Candidate: Does it mean that you can eat the meat of pets like dogs and cats? Interviewer: No. I can’t. They are pets—like family members. Candidate: But in some Asian countries, they do eat such meat. By the same token, violence and nonviolence are two ways of coping in a conflict, and understanding one form may not necessarily be a reverse image to (mechanically) comprehend the opposite behavior in a mechanical fashion. Adopted from Kool (2008)

The psychology of vegetarianism

Any discussion of the psychology of nonkilling would be incomplete without a section on vegetarianism, an ideology focusing on the nonkilling of animals for food. As one looks around, is it not surprising that people who would not even dream of hitting someone, leave alone killing, are able to eat, in fact, relish eating dead animals? In cultures and countries that abound in societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, where it is considered a crime to kill an animal for its tusk, skin or fur, where national parks are created for the protection of animal life, where poaching is normally considered a punishable offence—little thought is given to the killing of animals for food. Is it not paradoxical that while, on the one hand, governments create law for the protection of all types of animal species, these very same governments also encourage poultry farming? Is it not an anomaly that the same people who are members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals fail to refrain from eating dead animals? How do they explain it? Are there certain psychological processes that underlie such paradoxical thinking? This section will attempt to unravel the psychological explanations for animal eating and its opposite, namely vegetarianism.

Melanie Joy (2003, 2008), a University of Massachusetts professor, has offered a psychological analysis of how people who are not vegetarians reconcile the ethical dilemma of professing to love animals on the one hand and eating dead animals on the other. She has used the word “carnism” to refer to that in cultures and societies where animal consumption is the normal lifestyle. According to her, carnism may be likened to an ideology, that is, a set of ideas that can be used to explain behavior and thinking. Joy concludes that in cultures and societies where animal consumption is the normal lifestyle, carnism becomes the dominant ideology. Like all other dominant ideologies, it becomes deeply embedded in not only the culture but also in the cognitive structure of its members so much so that it becomes the unquestioned norm. Joy also draws our attention to the fact that since children in such societies get exposed to animal eating, long before they even learn how to talk, it is not surprising that they do not even think of loving animals on the one hand and killing them for consumption on the other, as paradoxical. That it takes the form of a dominant ideology is also clear from the fact that such behavior does not have a name (remember that carnism is a word coined by Joy simply because there was no word in such cultures to denote the ideology of animal eating). In contrast, people who fail to follow this dominant ideology are considered deviant or ‘odd’ and are therefore identified by being given a name: vegetarians. (Both of the present authors have gone through experiences, especially in the western cultures, of how we vegetarians survive! We are even asked, “So you don’t even eat fish” as if fish is different from meat). Compare this to the many cultures where meat eating is not the norm, for example, among Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Such cultures have vegetarianism as the dominant culture, and unlike their meat eating counterparts from other religions do give a name to those who eat animals, namely, nonvegetarians, clearly corroborating Joy’s idea that culturally embedded norms do not require a name, although ideologies that deviate from the norm are named. However, no matter how deeply culture bound the tradition of eating animals may be, it is clear that such food habits do create ethical dilemmas in the minds of the eaters.

The role of cognitive dissonance

The noted social psychologist, Leon Festinger, has clarified how each of us attempt to reconcile conflicting, thoughts, values and beliefs. According to Festinger (1957), whenever we have two conflicting thoughts tension is created. In order to reduce this unpleasant tension, we try to make adjustments, or attempt to find excuses for the anomaly. For example, it has been found that after making a purchase, say of a car, the degree to which people will defend the purchase is seen to increase, or, there is an escalation of commitment to the purchase. This enhanced commitment is merely one way of overcoming the conflicting thoughts or cognitive dissonance, as Festinger calls it. So, we start ignoring the deficiencies and simultaneously overly focus on the advantages. This principle is cogently demonstrated among carnists. A person who professes loving animals and caring for them on the one hand and eating them without any guilt on the other would often face this type of unpleasant arousal. Researches such as those by Melanie Joy (2001) and Carol Adams (2003) have time and again confronted people with this paradox. Each incident made the person offer excuses, the end result of which would be to reduce the cognitive dissonance created.

We can see a similar escalation of commitment toward the rationalization of animal eating. So pervasive is the ignoring of deficiencies, that Carol Adams has called it the absent referent. People will discuss the taste of the animal food, its health advantages and nutritive value, but will avoid the stark reality of killing—as if their dinner had nothing to do with the killing of animals or cruelty toward animals. Maybe this is why people in cultures, in which it is normal to slaughter animals for food, dare not discuss the terrible conditions prevailing at factory farms. It is, in fact, considered a social taboo (Iacobbo & Iacobbo, 2006).

The role of defense mechanisms

A very common way of overcoming cognitive dissonance is through the use of defense mechanisms, so called because they offer a method for defending themselves against unpleasant stress causing thoughts. According to Joy (2001), carnists take recourse to at least five such mechanisms. They are described below.

  • Denial: some people defend their food habit by denying the fact that carnism reflects cruelty to animals, and argue that animals that are raised for food, and then killed, do not “really” suffer.
  • Justification: others justify carnism by saying that these animals are being raised for the sole purpose of being used for food. If they are not consumed, why would they be raised.
  • Avoidance: many a time researchers have noted that people will not be ready to discuss the issue at all and will say (that) “don’t discuss these issues, you are ruining my dinner.”
  • Dichotomization: every once in a while we come across people who seem to have categorized animals into two categories--those that are raised for companionship and those that are raised for food. Having made such a distinction, they are no longer torn by ethical dilemmas.
  • Disassociation: people who use this defense mechanism reduce their unpleasant thoughts by saying that when they look at meat they do not think of it as an animal or even an animal part, because if they did so they would be disgusted and would be unable to eat it.

The question that perturbs many a vegetarian is that if meat eating causes so much of cognitive dissonance, why don’t they stop eating animals and become vegetarians? Of the many factors posited by meat eaters, fear of becoming frail in health and loss of strength seems to be the major deterrent. Thus when the noted novelist George Bernard Shaw first wanted to become a vegetarian at the young age of 18, he was warned by his doctors that he would not be able to survive. Ironically, when Shaw lived to a ripe old age and remained in good health throughout, despite being a vegetarian, he was once asked why he did not go back to those doctors who had so adamantly attempted to dissuade him from turning vegetarian. His reply was, “I would, but they had passed away years ago!” These doctors were not only justifying the eating of animals but were also propagating the myth that survival is possible only through eating of animals.

The myth that animals provide sources of nutrition not found in any other forms of non-animal food is so strong that even confirmed vegetarians have reverted to carnism. Yet, the ethical dilemma in their minds persists as shown by the continuous use of defense mechanisms. A good example is that of actress and model, Muriel Hemingway. After years of being a vegan, she reverted because she felt “super-weak”. She loved animals but when she ate meat, she felt more grounded.

The concept of Vegetarianism

Who are vegetarians? You may be surprised to learn that vegetarianism is not a fad of the current century, nor is it an ideology solely of Eastern origin. Until the middle of the 19th century, non-animal eaters in the western world were called Pythagoraeans. History stands testimony to the fact that while the dominant culture of the Greeks and Romans was that of meat eating, there were many scholars and philosophers who were vegetarians. The most notable among these was Pythagoras. Others were Socrates, Seneca, Plutarch and Plato.

On the basis of their food habits, non-animal eating people can be divided into categories, the number varying with culture and religion. For purposes of research, however, they have been divided into three categories:

  • Vegetarians--people who do not eat meat, fish, fowl or eggs.
  • Non-meat eaters--people who do not eat meat but will eat fish, fowl or eggs.
  • Vegans--people who refrain from eating not only meat, fish and fowl, but also all dairy products, including milk and eggs.

Surveys on vegetarians

Though the progress is slow, it clearly seems that vegetarianism is here to stay. A recent poll in the US (Stahler, 2006) reveals that as many as 12 million people are vegetarians and 19,000 more switch to vegetarianism each week. The figures for Europe are comparable. A 2002 Data Monitor report estimated that there are about 12 million vegetarians across Europe. In terms of percentages, however, the figures amount to a mere 2.3 % of the population of the US (Stahler, 2006), while for the UK it would be near 5.6% (Gelfand, 2003).

Rise in vegetarianism

When Gelfand (2003) attempted to understand why vegetarianism is on the rise, she found that while 78% people became vegetarians because of health benefits, 69 % chose vegetarianism for ethical reasons, saying that it felt good not to participate in violence and killing. They also believed that they were promoting kindness and compassion, but most of all they were not being hypocritical. Another 35% chose vegetarianism on ecological grounds, reasoning that we have only one earth to live on. Other reasons for the switch included religious, philosophical and economical reasons (vegetarian food is much cheaper).

Another reason often cited by newly converted vegetarians is the growing awareness that animals bred for food are often reared in extremely inhumane conditions. For the US alone, the figures are astounding. Every year 41.8 million beef cattle, 115 million pigs, 8.8 billion chickens and 26.8 million turkeys are slaughtered for human consumption. However, the conditions at these so called factory farms are so atrocious, that the well known singer, Sir Paul McCartney, once remarked, “If slaughter houses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian”.

The myths surrounding animal consumption and the fear of deviating from the cultural norm has led to the concept of “ethical ranching”, where animals have wide open grassland for grazing and are not cramped in small congested indoor spaces; where the animals are not administered hormones and other drugs to enhance production of milk, etc. But the end is the same, whether it be in a factory farm or an ethical ranch, the animals are being bred only to be killed. The question is—can killing of any kind be considered ethical? As Pythagoras puts it

“As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”

The concept of moral exclusion and nonkilling

The concept of moral exclusion refers to the viewing of people outside their moral boundary and attached to it is the implication that there is no problem in harming them, if necessary, because it is not forbidden (Deutsch, 1990). Moral exclusion has been widely linked to the decline in prosocial behavior. It occurs most commonly with those we consider existing outside our group, but it may also take place with the members of our own group. Whereas we promptly take some remedial action in case of moral exclusion of a member of our own group, such action is delayed or not taken at all for a member outside our group (Kool, 2008). Historically, Hitler’s treatment of Jews and the internment of people of Japanese origin during the WW II in the USA are large scale examples of moral exclusion (Nagata, 1993).

Respecting human life is a virtue that has been taught in cultures from centuries. Growing up as a young boy in India, one of the authors (Kool) was instructed by his parents to worship the sun and then feed five animals and birds every morning before he could get his own breakfast. It was a very strict family ritual. A rat or snake was not killed, but scared away or caught and then left in a jungle. There was enormous emphasis on treating life and the environment as sacred and such behavior promoted moral inclusion.

Nonkilling is morally inclusive, not exclusive. Research in psychology shows that moral exclusion is a motivational process leading to the formation of an ‘us-them’ dichotomy. On the other hand, being morally inclusive involves mitigating the ‘us-them’ dichotomy generating oneness and unification. A psychology of nonkilling is built with fine ingredients of inclusiveness that signal merging of all kinds of life and it continues to grow in human beings with their ability to minimize the gap between our attitudes and behavior express devoutly our pledge to knock out the boundaries between us and them. Buddhists have long been fostering kenso, a state that involves not merely focusing on oneself but to seek a state of interdependence in which we remain with others to seek enlightment. In Jainism, followers learn about the sin of separateness (called attavada) and how to avoid this tendency. Those who cannot conquer this evil are considered frail.

Moral responsiveness and nonkilling

If we are taught nonkilling through our cultural norms or religion, why do we acquiesce for killing or remain silent about it. When scores of people watch murder in our cities or nations and even remain indifferent to genocide in a country, it constitutes a failure of our moral response. It is like “I see an evil and I do not see an evil”. Ruth Linn (2001), of Haifa University, Israel, contended that mere moral competence is no virtue if it does not get translated into a moral response. What is good about morality if we do not respond to a blatant evil? Animal rights activists do not simply care for animals but also fight for the welfare of these animals in their community. To be morally responsive, an individual has to be more concerned with her moral conduct than with her moral beliefs. In this state, an individual looks beyond one’s own interest, much the same way a cleric, when acting like a saint, offers an interpretation much broader and richer than the contents of a holy book. Moral responsiveness aims at transcending universalism and gears toward inclusiveness.

Moral principles are not the enterprise of a single individual but “they exist outside of us” (Shermer, 2004). In a broader sense, nonkilling is the highest embodiment of coexistence and in its normative form, serves as a motivational force to keep us morally inclusive.

Lessons from Darwin and the post Darwinian analysis of nonkilling

The Darwinian theory of natural selection is conventionally assumed to favor the strong and the selfish: those who are able to maximize their own resources, often at the cost of their weaker counterparts, who as a result die, taking along with them their genetic pool. History proves that the strong overpower the weak and nature provides evidence that it is the fittest that survive. Thus all animals, including humans, seem pre-wired for killing. Yet what is the percentage of those who oppress, those who aggress and even those who murder, as a proportion of the world’s total population? It is an extremely small, in fact, negligible proportion though the wrath of those few could be the cause of suffering to thousands (Paige, 2003). Even more important is the fact that the propensity for peace, for nonaggression and for nonkilling is far more widespread and cuts across educational, cultural, economic and religious barriers. Does this not suggest that there could be some biological basis for nonkilling? We will address this issue next.

As mainstream psychologists moved from providing psychoanalytical explanations to more biological ones (for example, Storr, 1968) on the one hand, and the impact of Darwinian theory on the other, we saw the development of a new field of psychology, namely evolutionary psychology. It attempts to apply the principles of evolutionary theory to the realm of human behavior. While the early work of ethologists, for example, Lorenz (1974), on animal behavior in natural settings considered aggression to be instinctive, later research showed that this might not always be so (see Kool, 2008 for greater details). Further, there certainly seems to be an evolutionary basis for nonkilling.

Another emerging area of research is what has been named social cognitive neuroscience. This area of research attempts to apply the research tools of neuroscience, such as those of neuroimaging and neuropsychology to the understanding of social behavior. Recent findings in the area of social cognitive neuroscience have provided insights into the neurological substrates of four important areas of social cognition. These are, understanding others, understanding oneself, controlling oneself, and processes that occur at the interface between the self and others (Lieberman, 2007), all of which have important bearings for the understanding of the psychology of nonkilling.

Some important findings emerging from this field have been discussed below to show that nonkilling is indeed adaptive.

The genetic basis of nonkilling

It is a known fact that animals, including humans, show a propensity for killing whenever their survival is threatened. In other words, whenever a stimulus is perceived as threatening, the emotion of fear is elicited, with fight or flight as the end result (see Agrawal, 2001 for a more detailed explanation). A natural corollary to this would be that that if the same stimulus is perceived to be nonthreatening, fear would not be induced and the response could be a very cordial one. Moreover, there seem to be brain structures and processes that are responsible for such perceptions, which go a long way in identifying the adaptive nature of nonkilling.

Many a time abnormalities have provided insight into the functioning of normal processes. Similar is the case of social behavior including some of the correlates of nonkilling. There appears to be a genetic basis for perceptions of nonthreat as evidenced by MRI scans of patients with William’s Syndrome (WS). This is a condition with a known genetic basis, that is, 21 genes are missing from chromosome #7. A recent report of the NIMH (2005) showed that people with this syndrome are highly social and empathetic even for situations which would normally elicit the fear emotion. At the same time, this lack of fear is seen only for social stimuli as is clear from MRI scans during the viewing of threatening but nonsocial stimuli (such as the burning of an airplane). While in the latter case, the amygdala (or the “fear hub”, as it is commonly known) showed heightened excitation, this was not so when asked to view threatening social stimuli, as is normally the case. There were other differences, too, between the MRI scans of these WS patients and those who were non-WS. The WS individuals showed heightened excitation in other prefrontal areas of the cortex such as the dorso lateral region, the medial region and the orbitofrontal regions--all known to be related to the perception and responses to social stimulation (Mah, Arnold & Grafman, 2004).

The role of genetic factors in social cognition has also been brought to light by studies on monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins using the now famous Ultimatum Game. The Science Daily (2007) reports such a twin study in which as much as 40% of the total variation in responses to unfair choices was based on genetic factors, while Phelps (2006) has clarified that MZ twins showed greater similarity in amygdala excitation than DZ twins. Genetic factors are even involved in religiousness, with MZ twins showing greater similarity than their DZ counterparts (Koenig et al, 2005).

In short, neurological and behavioral studies show that violence reduces with high empathetic reactions. In contrast antisocial individuals have a diminished sense of remorse and lack the ability to empathize (Blair & Charney, 2003).

Animal studies on the correlates of nonkilling

The role of Darwinian evolution and the laws of natural selection are also clarified by the similarities between humans and their ancestors of yore on some correlates of nonkilling. The Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda has been the base for many such studies, since it is a well established fact that our most recent nonhuman ancestor is the chimpanzee. An ingenious experiment on one important correlate of nonkilling, namely, cooperation among chimps clarified that these chimps behaved much like their human counterparts. They not only understood when they required help (that is, cooperation from others), their role and their partner’s role, but they also knew whom to choose to work with. They chose to cooperate with those chimps that were more effective. The level of the complexity of the cooperative behavior of these chimps matched those of humans and it was hypothesized that cooperation could therefore have been inherited from their common ancestor some six million years ago (Melis et al, 2006). If a trait can survive over a period much longer than six million years, do we need to question its adaptive value?

The findings regarding another correlate of nonkilling, namely altruism, are however different. When humans are pitted against each other such that they can work for either vested interests, mutual interests or altruistic interests, responses vary with the situation and the person they are pitted against. When Jensen and his colleagues (2006) studied chimps in the same type of situations, the chimps showed neither altruism nor spite, providing evidence that both altruism and spite could be characteristics specific to humans alone, or developed in the six million years since we shared a common ancestry with apes. In a situation much like the Ultimatum Game used with humans, chimps do not reject unfair offers. They behave like rational selfish economists, rather than as social beings (Jensen, 2005). Similar studies on the neurobiology of punishment show that animals do punish others, but again for personal reasons such as the survival of the self or of members of their kin. Humans, on the other hand, can even punish altruistically, that is, in which the act of punishment, though personally costly, is mandated by cultural norms (Seymour, Singer & Dolan, 2007). Humans are seen to go a step further from such direct reciprocity. There is evidence from evolutionary psychology that they even engage in “I help you and somebody helps me” type of behavior, or what has been called indirect reciprocity (Nowak & Sigmund, 2005). All these provide evidence that while cooperation for personal interests is present in chimps, altruism and social reciprocity could be human traits.

Adaptation versus exaptation

A core concept in Darwinian theory was that of adaptation, that is, the changing architecture of organisms as a result of environmental demands. Humans today appear vastly different from their ancestors who dwelt in caves. The loss of body hair, the decrease in the size of teeth, and in fact, the stature of man is because those members of the Homo Sapien species that had these characteristics survived to pass on the genes for these characteristics to their offspring. However, evolution is not intentional and it does not foresee future needs (Buss, 2004). Rather, adaptive problems lead the search for new solutions which in turn interact with neural structures and processes to modify them accordingly. Structures and processes that survive through the ages are those that have proved to be adaptive, while those that become smaller or even extinct are ones that fail to serve any adaptational purpose.

Evolutionary psychologists are of the view that adaptation fails to explain all the changes that have occurred among humans. Another process, exaptation (Buss et al, 1998) is necessary. While the preservation of certain structures and loss of others is explained through the process of adaptation, it fails to explain additional functions undertaken by the same structures. The idea of exaptation can be better understood if one thinks of spandrels in bridges. Though they are constructed with the simple aim of supporting the structure of the bridge, they soon take over an additional function: that of providing shelter to the homeless. In much the same way, our brain was designed with some specific purposes but the increase in not only the size of the brain but also its complexity is an example of exaptation (Gould, 1991), with the spandrels so created through evolution housing activities such as religion, fine arts and war. When one type of aggression, emotional aggression, became restrictive for creating friendships also necessary for survival, another type of aggression, proactive aggression, was evolved to enhance friendships and prosocial behavior. Even animals restrict their aggressive behavior if it is found to be nonadaptive and can become cooperative (Lore & Schultz, 1993), as also seen in the studies on chimps cited above. Space has even been created to house romantic love. Bartels and Zeki (2000) obtained evidence that MRI scans of people in love with each other show marked activation in some areas coupled with deactivation in other areas, (including the amygdala) of the cortex suggesting a unique network behind this very complex phenomenon.

Another example of exaptation is the neurohormone called oxytocin. Once known for its clearly defined role of aiding birth and especially lactation, it is now being seen to be important for nonkilling too. If its function is simply to aid birth and lactation, it should be secreted only in females. Physiological findings however clarify that it is secreted in males too and helps not only to transport sperms but also aids sexual behavior (Bowen, 2007).

Recent research in neurobiology and neuropsychology has provided further interesting insights regarding the role of oxytocin. Earlier studies on animals had linked oxytocin to complex social and emotional behavior ranging from social attachment to aggression. More recent work has proved the same for humans too. It has recently been found to quell the brain’s fear centre, the amygdala’s reactions to fearful stimuli (Asher, 2005). However, its release is affected by acute stress (Bowen, 2007) and therefore appears to be a natural means of treating the Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) (Legros, 2002). This role of oxytocin as a stress reducer is also validated by findings showing that the stress hormone vasopressin and oxytocin work as antagonists and may even be called “ying-yang” hormones (Legros, 2001).

Oxytocin is also found to increase trust (Kirock, et al, 2005). That oxytocin is important for trust and showing nonfear is further corroborated in an interesting study by Meyer-Lindenberg et al, (as cited by Asher, 2005), in which 15 men were asked to sniff either oxytocin or a placebo, prior to viewing stimuli known to stimulate the fear centre, amygdala. As they viewed threatening pictures they also underwent MRI scans which revealed, as expected, greater excitation in the amygdala in the placebo condition than in the oxytocin condition. Even more importantly, the differences between the two conditions was maximal for the viewing of threatening human faces corroborating the finding that oxytocin plays a pivotal role in the regulation of social fear and the readiness to bear social risks. The cognitive mechanism behind this reduced fear could be the fact that oxytocin has been seen to enhance mind reading when subjects are administered the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Domes et al, 2007) and could therefore also be important for the development of empathy, not only another important correlate of nonkilling but also an activity for which there is considerable neurobiological evidence . It is because of findings such as the above that oxytocin is often called the “trust hormone” and there have even been efforts to market it in some form.

Thus, the findings from evolutionary psychology and from social cognitive neuroscience provide substantial evidence that nonkilling is adaptive in not only humans but even animals such as chimpanzees.

Box 2. The Tiger Temple of Thailand

In a Buddhist temple in Thailand, called Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yanasampanno Forest Monastery (Tiger Temple), the tigers live with other inmates and roam freely. They rest and sleep wherever they like. When they see a herd of cattle, they often get excited, but following instructions from their monk trainers, they resist the temptation to attack other animals to hunt for a meal outside the temple. Like any other pet, they live non-aggressively in the temple, and if there is any instinct of aggression that exists, it is not in operation even among the ferocious animal like the tiger. This 12-acre facility is a new home for raising and protecting the tigers from extinction

For more information, visit Adopted from: Kool, 2008

Concluding remarks

A psychological analysis of nonkilling consisting of behavioral features that go along with the studies on human cognition, neurosciences and evolution was presented in this chapter. While mentioning nonkilling without a hyphen may sound holistic, as Paige (2003) had contended, it is fair to conclude that the cognitive representation of killing versus nonkilling does not constitute opposite mirror images (of each other). The psychology of vegetarianism is still a very poorly explored topic as far as psychology is concerned, but from the available body of knowledge it is fair to conclude that a number of vegetarians look beyond their health and value and even adhere to nonkilling. If the tigers in the Wat Pa Luangta Yanasampanno Forest Monastery in Thailand (See Box 2) can live with the monks and without killing any animal, it should not be difficult at all for human beings to practice nonkilling (Kool, 2008).

Taking a leaf from the developments in evolutionary psychology, it is contended here that killing for survival is an adaptive function but killing for devouring ‘delicious’ food or for the purpose of revenge stretches us to exaptation, that is, a byproduct of behavior that has emerged in the course of evolution. It is similar to spandrels in bridges but the space so created under the bridge is used for multiple purposes, for example, car parking, shelter, etc--uses unforeseen by the engineers. And if the architecture of brain has been changing over a period of time, there must be some organic substrate that accompanies such behavior. In this context, the role of oxytocin in particular and other organic structures in general have been cited. It is well known that oxytocin, besides being useful during maternity, is also useful for trust and cooperation that are such significant psychological factors for nonkilling.


Adams, C. J. (2003). Living among meat eaters: The vegetarian's survival handbook. New York: Continuum.

Agrawal, R. (2001). Stress in life and at work. New Delhi: Response/Sage

Ardrey, R. (1966). The territorial imperative. New York: Athenaeum.

Arnett, J. (2008). The neglected 95%: Why American psychology need to become less American. American Psychologist, 63, 602-614

Asher, J. (2005). Trust-building hormone short-circuits fear in humans, NIH News, Dec 7.

Bartels, A. & Zeki, S. (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport: For Rapid Communication of Neuroscience Research. 2000 Nov. Vol. 11 (17) 3829-3834.

Blair, R.J.R. & Charney, D.S. (2003). Emotion regulation. In M. Mattson (Ed.), Neurobiology of aggression. Totowa: Humana Press

Bodurant, J. V. (1965). Conquest of nonviolence: The Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bowen, R. (2007). Oxytocin.

Buss, D. M. (2004). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of mind. New York: Basic Books

Buss, D. M. et al. (1998). Adaptation, exaptation and spandrels. American Psychologist, 53, 533-548

Deutsch, M. (1990). Psychological roots of moral exclusion. Journal of Social Issues, 40, 21-25

Domes G, Heinrichs M. et al. (2007). Oxytocin improves "mind-reading" in humans. Biol. Psychiatry, 15, 731-733.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Gelfand, T. (2003 January 23).

Gould, S. J. (1991). Exaptation: A crucial tool for evolutionary psychology. Journal of Social Issues, 47, 43-65

Iaccobbo, K. & Iacobbo, M. (2006). Vegetarians and vegans in America today. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Joy, M. (2001). From carnivore to carnist: Liberating the language of meat. Satya, 8, 26-27.

Joy, M. (2003). Psychic numbing and meat consumption: The psychology of carnism. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Saybrook Graduate School, San Francisco, CA.

Joy, M. (2008). Strategic action for animals. Herndon, VA: Lantern

Jensen. K. (2006, January 25). Humans Have A Strong Desire To Help Each Other, But Is Spite Also Part Of The Human Condition? ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 21, 2009, from¬ /releases/2006/01/060125082712.htm

Koenig, L. B., McGee, M., Krueger, R. F. and Bouchard, T. J. Jr. (2005). Genetic and environmental influences on religiousness: findings for retrospective and current religiousness ratings. Journal of Personality 73, 471-488.

Kohlberg, L. (1976). Moral stages and moralization. In T. Lokina (Ed.), Moral development and behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Kool, V.K. (Ed.) (1993). Nonviolence: Social and psychological issues. Lanham: University of America Press.

Kool, V. K. (2008). The psychology of nonviolence and aggression. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Kirsch, P., Esslinger, C. et al. (2005). Oxytocin modulates neural circuitry for social cognition and fear in humans. Journal of Neuroscience, 7, 1489-93.

Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, & Fehr E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 2, 673-676.

Lamm, C., Batson, C. D., & Decety, J. (2007). The neural substrate of human empathy: effects of perspective-taking and cognitive appraisal. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19, 42-58.

Lieberman¬ M, D. (2007). Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 259-289.

Legros, J. J. (2001). Inhibitory effect of oxytocin on corticotrope function in humans: Are vasopressin and oxytocin ying-yang neurohormones? Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26(7), 649-655.

Legros, J. J. (2002). Bull Mem Acad R Med Belg., 157(7-9):383-9; discussion 389-90. [Oxytocin: a natural means of treating psychological stress]

Linn, R. (2001). Conscience at war: On the relationship between moral psychology and moral resistance. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 7, 337-355

Lorenz, K. (1957). On aggression. New York: Hartcourt, Bruce and World.

Lore, R. K. & Schultz, L. A. (1993).Control of human aggression, American Psychologist, 48, 16-23

Mah, L., Arnold, M. C. & Grafman, J. (2004). Lesions of prefrontal cortex impair social perception. American Journal of Psychiatry, 16, 1247-1255.

Melis, A. et al. (2006).

Nagata, D. (1993). Moral exclusion and nonviolence. In V. K. Kool (Ed.), Nonviolence: Social and psychological issues. Lanham: University press of America.

NIMH Science News (2005). Scientists discover new clues about brain function in human behavior

Nowak, M. A, & Sigmund, K. (2005). Evolution of indirect reciprocity. Nature., 437, 1291-1298.

Paige, G. D. (1990). The idea of a center for global nonviolence. In V. K. Kool (Ed.), Perspectives on nonviolence. New York: Springer-Verlag

Paige, G.D. (2002). Nonkilling global political science.

Paige, G. D. (2003).

Phelps, E. (2006). Emotion and cognition: Insights from the studies of the human amygdale. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 27-53.

Shermer, M. (2004). The science of good and evil. New York. Holt

Stehler, C. (2006, January 1). Why some people are vegetarians and others are not: Taking responsibility. The Vegetarian Journal website.

Storr, A. (1968). Human aggression. New York: Atheneum.

Saymour, B., Singer, T. & Dolan, R. (2007). The neurobiology of punishment. Neuroscience, 8, 300-311.



Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address