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

CFA: Cognitive Science Stream at AAP 2015

This year the Australasian Association of Philosophy meeting is being hosted by Macquarie University (July 5th-9th), which also boasts a philosophy friendly Department of Psychology and an interdisciplinary Department of Cognitive Science.

This year we will continue to run an Advances in the Philosophy of Cognitive Science and Psychology stream in partnership with the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science:

In recent decades philosophers taking a rigerously naturalistic approach to the mind (broadly treating minds as natural phenomena open to empirical investigation) have made considerable advances in our understanding of phenomena such as consciousness, memory, delusions and mental representation to name just a few. This stream aims to showcase the newest work in this area.

Registration/Conference info: http://www.aap-conferences.org.au/

Early registration closes Friday May 15th

Please direct any questions specific to the stream to me, general questions about the conference should go to Jeanette Kennett

Do we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause actions?

It’s doubtful, is the short answer, but the long answer is more interesting. What I’m asking about today is the account of the sense of agency put forward by Daniel Wegner and various collaborators since the late ‘90’s (Aarts, Custers, & Wegner, 2005; Wegner, 2002; Wegner, Sparrow, & Winerman, 2004; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). Their account can be read as either an alternative to or an addition to the comparator model account of the sense of agency which we have met in previous posts. Unlike the comparator model which hypothesises that the sense of agency is elicited by the same mechanisms that are responsible for action control, Wegner and colleagues’ account suggests that the sense of agency is elicited by an inference as to the internal causes of action. In its most basic form if I infer that one or other of mental states, usually on of my intentions, causes me to act in a certain way, then I experience a sense of agency for that action. But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves for the moment, so let’s remind ourselves what the sense of agency is.

“Imagine that you are moving swiftly down a flight of stairs. At the appropriate floor, you slow and reach for the door handle that will allow you egress from the stairwell. As you open the door, you find it moves far more rapidly than you had intended. Someone else is opening the door from the other side! Call this the simultaneous door-opening effect. This effect involves the feeling that one is the agent behind an action being suddenly replaced by the feeling that one is not the agent due to the interference of another.” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 345)

In this example, which is supposed to be fairly ordinary and mundane the sense of agency is just the feeling of being the agent who is performing/controlling/initiating (different authors prefer different descriptors here) action. That is the feeling which Wegner and colleagues’ are seeking to explain. So what, on their account, might be happening in the simultaneous door opening case? It seems that the agent of this action will, for a while, infer that their mental states, their intention to open the door say, is causing their action, and so they experience a sense of agency. But, after experiencing the effects of another on the door this inference is no longer plausible and so their sense of agency is lost or reduced.

In order to complete the model Wegner and colleagues owe us an account of how such inferences are made. Well that’s probably asking a bit much, but we would like an account that tells us something about what information the inference is based on and that makes predictions about when it is made. This is just what we get in the articles cited above. To be able to infer that one or other of one’s mental states are the cause of an action one needs to represent the action and a mental state that is a potential cause. Say opening a door and one’s intention to open the door. When do we infer that one’s intention caused the door to open? According to Wegner and colleagues we do so automatically when 3 further conditions are met. First, the intention must appear an appropriate time prior to the action, e.g. a memory of previously opening a door won’t be inferred as the cause of one currently opening the door. Call this the principle of priority. Second, the intention must be consistent with the action, i.e. it should specify that action, e.g. my desire to get a coke represents a different action than my intention to open the door so won’t be inferred as a cause of that action. Call this the principle of consistency. Third, the intention must be represented as the exclusive cause of the action. Call this the principle of exclusivity. This is what is violated in the door opening scenario, in that case the subject perceives that another agent is also opening the door and so their intention to open the door isn’t an exclusive cause of it opening. As such their sense of agency is reduced.

Wegner and colleagues’ studies looked to confirm this model by attempting to elicit a sense of agency for actions not controlled by the subject. They do so by creating circumstances where to the subject it appears that the principles of priority and consistency are met. Typically it is clear to the subject that the principle of exclusivity is not met. However, as each of the three principles are considered to contribute to the sense of agency, and the sense itself is conceived of as being formed by continuum, it is hypothesised that subjects in these studies should report a weak sense of agency rather than a full or absent sense.

If we allow the assumption that the inference that one’s intention is the cause of an action is mandatory, i.e. that the subject must make it when the principles are met, then combined with the above assumption about a continuum of senses of agency, some studies do support Wegner and colleagues’ model. For example, in the helping hands study (Wegner et al., 2004), subjects reported a weak sense of agency for other people’s actions:

“In this study, one subject (the participant) stood with their back against the second subject (the helper). The participant stood with their arms by their side, whilst the helper reached their arms forward underneath the participant’s arms. A screen obscured the helper in such a way that their arms appeared (from the front) to be those of the participant. Both subjects were given head phones. The helpers heard a series of instructions to perform a set of hand movements (e.g. make the ok sign with both hands). The participants were divided into three groups depending on what they heard. One group (the preview group) heard the instructions to the helper whilst the other groups (the control groups) heard either nothing or an instruction to perform a movement other than what the helper heard. Those in the preview group reported a greater sense of agency over the movements of the helper than either of the control groups (Wegner et al. 2004, pp. 841 & 842).” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 346).

A variety of studies, mostly coming from Wegner and his collaborators, seem to confirm that subject’s experiences of their own agency can be altered by playing with the principles of priority, consistency and exclusivity. As such we have good reason to consider this model a viable explanation of the sense of agency.

As I said above, though, I think it is doubtful that it is making such an inference that causes subjects to experience a sense of agency. The reason for this, is that such an account ties the sense of agency to the subject’s knowledge of their mental states, in particular their intentions. This, it seems, we have good reason to question as some subjects seem to experience a sense of agency even when they don’t know what their intentions are.

A study by Montgomery and Lightner (2004) provides an illustrative example. They began by showing young children (3-4 years old) a picture of a ball. They then copied the picture by holding their child’s drawing hand (with the child’s eyes closed) and moving the hand in a circle. The child then watched the experimenter alter the picture to be a picture of a clock. In comparison conditions the child either produced a copy of the picture of a ball themselves or produced the copy themselves and then watched as the experimenter changed it to a picture of a clock. After the picture of a clock or ball was produced in this way the child was asked who had produced the (final) picture. This was relatively easy for 3-4 year olds, most of whom were able to accurately state who drew the final picture. That is they were able to identify the agent of the action, suggesting they experienced a sense of agency. Despite this, in the conditions where the experimenter changed the picture of a ball to a picture of the clock, the children tended to claim that they had tried (i.e. intended) to produce a picture of a clock. In other words, although the children where good at keeping track of who the agent of the action was, they were poor at knowing their own intentions. Even though they knew it was the experimenter and not themselves who had drawn the clock, they nevertheless claimed that they had tried to produce the picture of a clock.

Lost? Fair enough. The point is in this study children knew who had done what (so they had a sense of agency) but they did not know what their intentions where. So it seems that a sense of agency is not dependent on knowing what one’s intentions are, as predicted by Wegner and colleagues’ model. So it is, as I say, doubtful that we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause our actions.

with love


A more complete version of this argument is published in: Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.


Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Wegner, D. M. (2005). On the inference of personal authorship: enhancing experienced agency by priming effect information. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 439–458.

Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.

Montgomery, D. E., & Lightner, M. (2004). Children’s developing understanding of differences between their own intentional action and passive movement. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22, 417–438.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press.

Wegner, D. M., Sparrow, B., & Winerman, L. (2004). Vicarious Agency: Experiencing control over the movements of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(6), 838–848.

Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54(7), 480–492.