A plea for some psychology in public discussions of filicide

Filicide is the murder of a child by a parent. The term covers killings by genetic, step and de facto parents and the more specific crimes of neonaticide (the murder of a child within 24 hours of birth) and infanticide (the killing of a child under 1 year of age and defined in some jurisdictions, e.g. the UK, as necessarily involving a mental impairment) (Bourget, Grace, & Whitehurst, 2006; Browne & Lynch, 1995; Farooque & Ernst, 2003). When Damien Little allegedly shot and drowned his two children and himself this kind of killing came roaring back into public awareness. This kind of death unfortunately cannot be a private death, and I am sorry for heaping on those suffering from these killings. When I write about filicide, the hope is to contribute something to understanding it so it can be prevented. But, this comes at the cost of keeping certain individuals suffering in the public eye, and I am sorry that this is the case.

Many other commentators are writing about this case, with the same goal: understand and prevent. Rightfully much of this comes from feminist scholars and popularisers. I say “rightfully” because we know of the importance of gender stereotypes in both causing filicide and how we judge the responsibility of perpetrators (e.g. Wilcyznski, 1997). However, much of this commentary neglects the insights from the rigorous psychological study of filicide. Although McPherson is right when she laments that:

feminists are tired of hearing the voluminous acts of male violence against women and children explained away in a plethora of ‘individual’ circumstances. This explaining away turns gendered violence into a ‘figment of our imaginations’. It implies no systemic problem exists and, ergo, no systemic action is required.”

This shouldn’t be taken as implying, as McPherson sometimes seems to suggest, that the psychology can be safely ignored and that these problems can be dealt with and the social level alone. Without a properly interdisciplinary approach we run the risk of propagating myths about filicide which only get in the way of our understanding.

For example, McPherson says of Little:

While the circumstances remain unclear, it is hard not to be reminded of the Farquharson case with its narrative of ex-spousal vengeance.”

Perhaps it is, but we must not mistake this intuition for psychological insight. Spousal-Revenge or retaliation killings as they are known are those cases of filicide in which the motivation of the killer is to harm the child’s other parent by taking the child away, in the most drastic way imaginable. There are deep problems in our understanding of these killings. But, what we do know is that these killings are exceedingly rare. For example, after a study of public records of all child homicides in Sweden between 1971 and 1980, Somander and Rammer (1991) classified just one of their sample of 77 killers as of this type. Such killings are perpetrated more often then men then by women, but mothers have been known to kill for this reason (Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008b). Although common, suicide is by no means universally attempted following a revenge filicide. Leveillee et al. (2007) report that in their sample (1986-1994, Québec Canada) of the 27 killers who attempted suicide following filicide and who had an identifiable motive 13 were motivated by revenge. In contrast with the 37 who did not attempt suicide and had an identifiable motive, five were motivated by revenge (Leveillee et al., 2007). It is possible that revenge was a motivation for Little, but we can’t know without having the suicide note.

Instead of speculating on exceedingly rare motivations which inspire a lot of press, it is helpful to understand what is in common amongst similar kinds of killings. We know a fair bit about that and it is here that we begin to get a grip on how bizarre filicide is, and how our limited the tools which we normally use to understand each other are. One psychological factor which is common for a variety of kinds of filicide is something called “identity collapse” (M. Liem, 2010; Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008b; Somander & Rammer, 1991; West, Hatters Friedman, & Resnick, 2009). It has been proposed that both family annihilators and those who commit revenge filicide become violent following the collapse of their role as father, provider, husband, wife, or mother (Leveillee et al., 2007; Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008a). But identity collapse is not simply being distraught at this loss. Those who experience this identify so strongly with the lost role, and only with that role, that when they lose the role they lose themselves. They can’t tell who or what they are any longer.

Normally when we try to understand why someone acts violently we do so with reference to emotions such anger and social constructs such as power. But, the bizarreness of identity collapse along with how difficult it is to imagine reminds us that these tools, whilst helpful for day to day life, are so badly limited in cases like filicide. Whilst McPherson is rightly critical of explanations of the killings in terms of ‘snapping’ and the like and does try to undo some of the damage done by Ford’s unfortunate equation of mental illness with low self esteem, the attempt to place the killing in a broader patriarchal context doesn’t go far enough. It can’t go far enough until the psychology of filicide is added to the discussion.

McPherson does gesture in this direction when she says:

The question we must ask is not what led this man to drive himself and his children into the water (although that may be a question for mental health exploration). The question we must ask is, whatever the reason prompting his behaviour, why was this the behaviour he engaged in.”

But her attempt to answer this neglects the complexity of the psychology and is inconsistent with some of what we know about such killings. She says:

This is not a new question. Dr Deborah Kirkwood, author of ‘Just Say Goodbye’ (2012), argues that male filicidal behaviours usually occur in the context of a family breakdown and are often preceded by a pattern of violence or control within the family.

Her research points to the highly gendered nature of those acts; male perpetrators of filicide in particular hold the view that hurting children is a mechanism for hurting the (ex) spouse. It is an act irrevocably tied to patriarchal perspectives on the ownership of ‘family’ and the use of violence as a method for enforcing that ownership.”

But this hypothesis cannot explain why female killers also act out of revenge, nor can it explain why spousal revenge is identified as the least common motivation by some way for both male and female killers. This is not to say that breaking patriarchal stereotypes can’t contribute to ending other forms of violence, or even some cases of filicide. The most commonly identified motivation for male perpetrators of filicide has the unfortunate name of ‘accidental filicide’. The name is unfortunate because it could be taken as downplaying the actions of the perpetrator. That is most assuredly not the intention Resnick who coined the term. What he was trying to communicate was that when the killer kills they are not intending to kill, rather they are intending to abuse their child. These kinds of cases are much, much more common than spousal revenge cases, or murder-suicides which have other motivations. McPherson’s analysis seems apt for many of these cases which we do have reason to think are motivated by the desire for power, anger and a propriety sense of ownership of the child. We must be careful, though, not to assume that this analysis generalises to murder-suicides or spousal-revenge killings, where the psychology seems to involve a variety of factors which are extremely difficult to understand such as ‘identity collapse’. To understand these crimes the feminism needs to inform and be informed by the psychology and the psychology needs to be taken as seriously as the feminism.

with love


Bourget, D., Grace, J., & Whitehurst, L. (2006). A review of maternal and paternal filicide. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 35(1), 74–82.

Browne, K. D., & Lynch, M. A. (1995). The nature and extent of child homocide and fatal abuse. Child Abuse Review, 4, 309–316.

Farooque, R., & Ernst, F. A. (2003). Filicide: A review of eight years of clinical experience. Journal of the National Medical Association, 95(1), 90–94.

Leveillee, S., Marleau, J. D., & Dube, M. (2007). Filicide: A comparison by sex and presence or absence of self-destrutive behaviour. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 287–295.

Liem, M. (2010). Homicide–parasuicide: a qualitative comparison with homicide and parasuicide. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(2), 247–263.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008a). Familicide: a comparison with spousal and child homicide by mentally disordered perpetrators. Clinical Behaviour and Mental Health, 18, 306–318.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008b). Filicide: A comparative study of maternal versus paternal child homicide. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 18, 166–176.

Somander, L. K., & Rammer, L. M. (1991). Intra- and extrafamilial child homicide in sweden 1971-1980. Child Abuse and Neglect, 15, 45–55.

West, S. G., Hatters Friedman, S., & Resnick, P. J. (2009). Fathers who kill their children: an analysis of the literature. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54(2), 463–468.

Wilcyznski, A. (1997). Mad or bad? Child killers, gender and the courts. British Journal of Criminology, 37(5), 419–436.

The out-group fallacy; or, bad reasoning in the real world part 13

The out-group fallacy, which we might also call the dehumanisation or “othering” fallacy, is the belief that a persons moral value changes depending on their relationship to you and people you perceive as being like you.

I’m not talking here about the fact that our relationships with people may change the responsibilities we have toward them; for example, that being in a caring relationship with someone increases the contribution you ought to make toward that persons welfare. Relationships like this, such as caring for a child or sick friend, are binding relationships which we all benefit from. It is not irrational for us to enter into relationships which create a special set of duties or responsibilities toward some individuals and not others (provided of course we support collective efforts to provide equivalent relationships for those who have lost those relationships, e.g. supporting collective efforts to find orphans adoptive parents).

What is irrational, however, is to believe that the lives, welfare or freedom of some people is intrinsically worth less than others because they do not bare specific relationships to you, or that they are not like you in the right sort of ways. When put like this I think it is plain that it is a simple mistake of reasoning to think, e.g. that the sudden death of a child in Kazakhstan is intrinsically not as bad as the sudden death of a child in Scotland (put yourself in their shoes, like your mother taught you). Depending on which nation/culture/people/family you identify most strongly with (put another way; what your in-group is) you will naturally feel some such deaths more keenly than others. But, but we ought not take the naturalness of this feeling as a guide to the intrinsic moral value of the now dead.

Like I said to do so is to commit a mistake in reasoning, but it is a deeply ingrained mistake. In working against this, we are not working against a mistake like applying the wrong rule to solving an equation, we are working against the biggest design flaw in human cognition. And it is an insidious design flaw. It is possible, for example, to make people like each other less simply by placing them in arbitrary groups like “team red” and “team blue”. When these groups are powerful social constructs, such as race, class or nationality this changes from being more inclined to not like someone to concert efforts to enslave, deprive or conquer. In other words, acting as though the lives, welfare and freedom of some is intrinsically worth less than others.

We are awash with examples like this, but I would like to focus on this recent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In this piece Mayer-Cesinano attempts to justify peoples differential responses to the murders by Daesh in Paris and those in Beirut. This differential response, in terms of emotional response, social media sharing, out-rage from bigoted or isolationist groups and military actions undertaken by France and others could be seen as being based in the “some lives matter more” outcome of the out-group fallacy. Yet Mayer-Cesinano denies this, instead claiming that the differential response is simply a matter of how we naturally experience grief more strongly when the lives lost are close to us and that an attack by Daesh in Paris is more surprising than an attack by the same group in Beirut, simply because the land they control is closer to Beirut than Paris. Now there’s a good point in the vicinity of this later point, namely that someone living in London might rationally feel more personally threatened by an attack in Paris than one in Beirut, as it suggests an expansion of the areas which Daesh are trying to attack. But, it would have been helpful for Mayer-Cesinano to say that rather than just that the Paris attack defied expectations.

The bigger mistake Mayer-Cesinano makes is to ignore the intrinsically moral reactions to the attacks and how they differed. This is not simple a matter of differential grief, but rather a difference in the valuing of those who were killed. Specifically we have seen an increase in bombing and discussion of the possibility of sending ground troops to Syria in the wake of the Paris attack, but this reaction doesn’t occur, or doesn’t occur to the same extent when “non-western” people are killed. Keep in mind that this isn’t talked about in terms of a greater need for France to protect itself from murders in Paris than in Beirut, but specifically in terms of a greater need for retribution for the deaths in Paris. In other words, it matters more (morally) that people have died in Paris than in Beirut.

Now don’t get me wrong, I felt the Paris attacks more than those in Beirut, no doubt because of my relationships with Paris. I’ve been to Paris, but not Beirut, I have friends in Paris and not Beirut and the intellectual, moral and cultural achievements of France and its people are much more strongly part of my cultural narrative than those of Lebanon. Whilst all this makes my emotional reaction to those murders understandable, what it doesn’t do is justify a different moral valuing of the deaths, that would depend on the out-group fallacy and that is the mistake made by Mayer-Cesinano.

with love, DrNPC

Ad Hominem; Or, Bad Reasoning in the Real World Part 12

Sisters and Brothers,

Once again Australian politics has shown itself to be fertile ground for those of us who like to point bad reasoning when we see it (I’m shocked). For those who don’t know the climate change “debate” in Australia is essentially a running joke, with frankly bizarre conspiracy theories getting mainstream press, and many prominent politicians repeatedly claiming that either the climate isn’t changing, or that it is but Human activity has nothing to do with it. Or most amusingly that we shouldn’t have wind farms because they’re ugly (that is actually their best reason, not a shovel article).

Within this context Senator Larissa Waters yesterday asked whether the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a response to the Pope’s recent comments on climate change. This was also an attempt, I suspect, for Waters and her party the Greens — who are traditionally much better at communicating with those who self-identify as atheist — to highlight common ground with the Catholic Church. None-the-less the question is relevant because the Prime Minister strongly self-identifies as Catholic and so the Pope’s position may well lead to the Prime Minister changing his mind on climate change.

Now the response to Waters in the Senate is what I’d like to focus on here. Aside from some expected name calling (“bloody bigot” “disgusting”), Senator Barry O’Sullivan interjected asking Waters if she was married. How this is supposed to function as an attack on her escapes me, but none-the-less that was clearly the intent. Apparently we should not listen to women who aren’t married (this is a long running strategy from the Prime Minister’s, in fact conservative, Liberal Party who questioned former Prime Minister Gillard’s capacity to love because she was unmarried and had no children).

This argument is a prime example of what we call an Ad Hominem Fallacy. This fallacy takes the form of highlighting some irrelevant feature of a person, in this case their marital status, an using that to attack their argument, or question, or conclusion. When laid out like this the argument is clear fallacious:

Question: will the Prime Minister be changing his position on climate change in light of the Pope’s teachings?

Response: we shouldn’t answer that because the asker is not married.

Not only fallacious of course, but catastrophically sexist (male senators never have their questions rejected on the grounds that they aren’t married).

It’s important to distinguish the Ad Hominem Fallacy from some other arguments we see in the public sphere which sometimes look superficially similar. It is not committing the Ad Hominem Fallacy to question someone’s trustworthiness when you have specific grounds for thinking they might be lying. This is most relevant in cases of testimony. For example, we don’t ask the goalkeeper if the ball crossed the goal line because of well known biases that come with perceiving sport when a member of a team. In this case we treat the goalkeeper’s testimony that the ball didn’t cross the line as untrustworthy because we have good reason to suppose that their perception is biased (even if we don’t think they’re lying about what they saw). Similarly, despite what Joe Hockey would have us believe it is not committing the Ad Hominem fallacy to question someone’s qualifications to perform a specific professional job when they show evidence that they are not qualified for the job in question. Neither of these cases are instances of the fallacy because they deploy specific evidence regarding a person’s capacity to make a particular judgement or to complete a specific task.

Instances of the fallacy, in contrast, highlight some irrelevant, but apparently undesirable, feature of person to attack a question, argument or conclusion when stands independently of the person asking, arguing or concluding. Anyone could have asked Water’s question and it would have been relevant regardless of whether or not they where married.

with love, DrNPC

Once last note: to my mind the Ad Hominem Fallacy is the most basic mistake one can make in argument. It’s essentially responding to everything by saying “so’s your face”. If we are in an instance when Senator’s, who are presumably well educated, still think that this is an appropriate way to conduct themselves when discussing important issues like climate change, faith and leadership in the Catholic Church one really has to wonder if our education system is achieving the goals we, as a society, want it to. Perhaps it is time to properly fund education, end the absurd private/public division and the end the over the top political interference in the content of course we’ve seen this century.