Is this the real life, is this just fantasy? When should we act against disturbing imagination

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A British nurse has been arrested for claiming online to have eaten two women, with the police digging up his garden. This is the latest twist on the Gilberto Valle case, where a New York policeman stands accused for plotting to kidnap, rape, murder and cannibalize women. The case hinges upon whether the disturbing online discussions between Valle, the nurse and others are actual evidence of planning crimes, or just vivid shared fantasies. When should we act when encountering disturbing fantasies?

Pass the fava beans and chianti

Daniel Engbert writes in Slate:

“Then again, it’s hard to say exactly what Valle is accused of doing in the first place. He never kidnapped anyone, or raped anyone, or murdered anyone. He was never violent to the women who will take the stand. He’s never tasted human flesh. But he thought about these things, and he talked about these things. He may have even taken steps to plan them out. But did he really mean to do them? “This case is about seeing the difference between the real world and the pretend world on the Internet,” said his lawyer Julia Gatto, … “This is a really, really important case. Not for Gilberto Valle, for all of us.”

I do not have any information about the case, but on purely statistical grounds it is fairly likely Valle and the nurse are innocent. Serial killers are very rare (and might become rarer), making up a very small percentage of the total homicide rate; their actual number worldwide at any time is likely less than a hundred. The probability of finding one just before they started their career is low. In comparison it seems likely that the number of people with vivid, disturbing fantasies or who idolizes them is many orders of magnitude larger. People with “fantasy prone personality” make up 4% of the population. It is not hard to imagine that for every real serial killer there are thousands who like to pretend they are.

This base rate problem is also the fundamental problem of criminal profiling. It is easy to study criminals once they are caught, and much effort has gone into predicting recidivism rates. However, there is not much evidence about the uncaught criminals or strange behaviors among “normal” people. So while “deviant sexual fantasies” are common among offenders, similar fantasies seem to occur among non-offenders who will indeed never offend (see for example this, this, and this study). Experts have discussed extensively how fantasies could help form an offence script; see for example Dion Gee and Aleksandra Belofastov, Profiling Sexual Fantasy: Fantasy in Sexual Offending and the Implications for Criminal Profiling, in Criminal Profiling: International Theory, Research, and Practice, Ed. Richard N. Kocsis, Humana Press 2007. But as Gee and Belofastov write:

“The hypothesis that fantasy facilitates action has led many researchers to express concern over the role that sexual fantasy, and in particular deviant sexual fantasy, may play in sexually aberrant behavior. Despite this oft-argued theoretical nexus, empirical research has yet to identify the potential link between (deviant) sexual fantasy and sexual offending.”

So the prosecution in the Valle case better have some other evidence of real planning.

Imaginary intent

The problem of actually telling when somebody has a dangerous intent is nontrivial. Consider recent cases of children being suspended for throwing imaginary grenades or having gun-shaped breakfast pastries (or anything else). The real cause is schools being antsy about school shootings and adopting zero tolerance policies: they show they are willing to act (a cornerstone in security theater), the schools want to make sure that any child that shows even a hint of dangerous potential is as far away as possible, and the enormous salience of shooting make people willing to overreact in situations of uncertainty.

Humans have a natural ability to create imaginary worlds. When children play they develop a sophisticated understanding of make-believe that manages to maintain a fictional world simultaneously with the real world – toys can simultaneously be real animals and mere possessions, fiction can briefly be suspended for a quick conversation with a parent, abilities inside the fiction are understood to be fictional. I suspect this is part of our general intelligence: when deciding what to do we create small fictional futures of varying detail where we play out the consequences of different courses of action. It requires good working memory – otherwise we can’t figure out consequences and just get confused – and mental book-keeping to keep real and imagined working side by side. Failure of keeping reality and imagination apart impairs thinking itself.

Our culture has a split view of imagination. One one hand imagination is typically seen as something very positive. Consider these recent news stories picked at random: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. While much of this is actually creativity – finding unexpected new solutions – rather than imagination – envisioning a fictional world – there is a complex of activities and concepts here that are highly valued. Except that they are highly valued in children and innovators, and perhaps less so when we discover that our co-worker likes to read My Little Pony fanfiction, or spends much his spare time developing an elaborate fantasy that he is a dragon. All societies have disdain for people who deviate from the approved social script and roles. Escapism is seen as negative. There is the worry about mixing up reality and fiction, running from Don Quixote to modern concerns about roleplaying games or online personas – but only if it is the wrong kind of fiction. It is telling that method actors, one of the groups that probably has the greatest real risk of confusing reality and fiction, are currently high-status enough to be merely regarded as eccentric rather than having mental disorders. And let’s not even go into the issues of religious imagination…

But while we are used to our own and socially approved imagination, it can be hard to follow the imagination of somebody else. Sometimes we mistake entirely earnest thinking for fancy. We can both take imagined things too literally – seeing the mimed grenade as an actual promise of mass violence – or imagine further embellishments of somebody else’s imagination – maybe the online rape fantasies are actually real plans unfolding? We should recognize how error-prone we are when dealing with the contents of other minds.

Meeting the alien neighbors

Thanks to the Internet we are now rubbing virtual shoulders with people with alien interests and views. If moving to the big city forced us to tolerate strangers and their habits to a new degree, moving online turns things up a few notches. Most of the time we only encounter people like ourselves since we seek them out, but occasionally the virtual walls crumble and we glimpse the Others. It is not just that people with odd or deeply disturbing interests can find each other and interact, but their interaction leaves traces. When encountering such a trace we often lack references within our own context to judge it. Like how China’s and Iran’s news agencies, unused to satire, fell for stories from the Onion, we might take it at face value. Or, like after nearly any spree shooting, realize too late that a particular message was intended as a manifesto… unlike the numerous nearly identical screeds produced by people who will never do anything.

There is another group of people where we encounter disturbing mental imagery: authors. If told that your neighbor spends much time thinking about various methods of stalking, kidnapping, torture, murder and disposing of bodies you might be disturbed… until it is mentioned that she is a crime fiction writer. Suddenly the gory imagination seems justified. But again, what does the extra fact about the novel actually prove?

Sometimes authors are accused for being bad people because they write about horrific or salacious subjects. Their imagination, after all, might give some insight into their character. An interesting case occurred recently when Jim Webb was attacked by political opponents using quotes from his novels to hint that he was unsuitable:

“More troubling than anything Webb wrote is the idea that a novelist aiming for public office — or any occupation — should have to explain what he had in mind while writing fiction.And far more perverse than a staged sex act in a wartime novel is our incremental trending toward literalness at a time when literal-mindedness is the blunt instrument of those trying to drag Western civilization into a new dark age.”

As pointed out by the post it is dangerous to be overly literal in reading anything written by anybody: we make up characters, viewpoints and stories for complex reasons, including to take stands against them.

Judge not?

So, can we judge people on the content of their fantasies? I think we can conclude that:

  • Deviant fantasies are bad predictors of future bad behavior.
  • A rich fantasy life is not evidence for a loss of the sense of reality.
  • New media makes us confront strange minds more often.
  • Unsettling insights into other minds might tell us only part of truth about the person.
  • When should we act on discovering disturbing fantasies? Probably when there is actually evidence that someone has a propensity for mixing up reality and fantasy. But that evidence must come from outside the fantasy

    One can still argue that some thoughts are just wrong, they are an affront to human dignity even if they stay within the originating mind. Spending attention and mental effort to build up horrific fantasy worlds might make their creators worse people. They would be better off imagining something different. But it is still their minds.

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