Certain current events and concepts have fascinating elements in common. The first chart, that I call “Counterintuitive Remedial Action”, displays conduct that at first glance appears to be the exact opposite of what is needed to fix a problem. The second chart deals with how we define who is “in” and who is “out” in our behavior with and towards others.

Counterintuitive Remedial Action

Field

Anomaly

Corrective Device

Intended Result

Aero-

dynamics

An airplane is flying too slowly to maintain lift,[1] and risks falling out of the sky.

A “stick shaker” is an automated system that changes the angle of the fuselage to the ground by temporarily pointing the nose of the aircraft downward a few degrees below level flight.

With the assistance of gravity, the plane regains speed and avoids a stall.

Economics

A deep economic downturn has total spending at a much lower level than required for full employment.

Stimulate the economy by increasing government spending significantly (and repaying the borrowed money later). An alternate approach is a “Pigovian” tax[2] on activities and product purchases that harm others such as pollution, gas-guzzlers and risky financial instruments.[3]

Raise tax receipts, increase jobs and encourage private investment. Avoid a depression.

Military Intelligence

The Taliban is gaining strength in Afghanistan.

Create a time-delimited surge of 30,000 additional combatants.

Permit domestic forces to regain control before U.S. troops evacuate.

Psychology

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Inflict more short-term pain in a controlled setting by encouraging a patient to re-live the experience.

Deconstruct the elements inducing fear.

Group Identity

Entity

Issue

Conduct

Effect

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut acting through its former bishop, Edward Egan.

Sexual abuse of children by priests.

Relocating priests to different parishes, denying awareness of a problem, and ignoring or intimidating victims.

He treated group membership as more important than alleged or proven criminal conduct involving children.

Defense Advanced Research Products Agency (“DARPA”).

Information propagation across a social network.

Offering a $40,000.00 reward for the location of ten red 8-foot-diameter balloons visible in public places throughout the U.S.

An M.I.T. team won in just under 9 hours by creating a Website offering rewards to spotters. 4,665 different people participated.

Abdulsalam S. al-Zahrani, age 46.

Unknown

He allegedly murdered anthropology professor emeritus Richard T. Antoun at Binghamton University on December 4, 2009.

Graduate student Al-Zahrani had reportedly become increasingly violent and fearful. In the days leading up to the stabbing, for example, he purportedly asked a roommate if he was afraid of death.

Major Nadal Hassan

Unknown

Alleged shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas on November 5, 2009.

Hassan was apparently concerned about being deployed to a combat zone.

My theory about the conduct of many mass shooters and some single-victim killers is that their bizarre, horrific behavior lies at the opposite end of the group identity spectrum from Facebook aficionados and collaborative balloon-spotters. They occupy an uncharted mental health realm in which a pathological reaction appears to be triggered by anger; or perceptions of limited privacy, privation, entitlement, discrimination, helplessness or unresolved social status. At some point they become overwhelmed and then they kill.

For nearly fifty years, we have known that Norway rats cannibalize each other upon reaching a certain level of physical crowding.[4] Obviously, humans snap for more subtle reasons. We will not understand exactly what those are or how they impact individual cases without considerable research.



[1] Colgan Flight 3407 to Buffalo, on February 12, 2009. The pilot manually overrode the stick shaker, with a resulting crash killing everyone on board.

[2] Here is the Wikipedia definition: “A Pigovian tax (also spelled Pigouvian tax) is a tax levied on a non-market activity that generates negative externalities; such a tax is intended to correct the market outcome. In the presence of negative externalities, the ‘social cost’ of a market activity is not covered by the private cost of the activity. In such a case, the market outcome is not efficient and the result may lead to over-consumption of the product. A Pigovian tax equal to the negative externality is thought to correct the market outcome.”

[3] This means of correcting our economy is favored by Robert H. Frank, Professor of Economics at Cornell University.

[4] Calhoun JB. Population density and social pathology. Sci Am 1962; 306: 139-48.