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Can Psychology Explain What Happened Between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp?

16/09/2014 09:45 BST | Updated 12/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Although there has been a verdict in the Oscar Pistorius trial, will this satisfy global curiosity as to what happened on the night that Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead by Oscar Pistorius?

The judgement appears to hinge on possible motives behind the tragic events. The verdict may therefore continue to be hotly debated, and there might be an appeal.

Was this a terrible accident, or a pre-meditated act, and was there an important background consideration of possible serious problems in the relationship?

Research from Columbia University in New York, examining the massive disparities between black and white homicide rates in the USA, suggests a crucial psychological consideration.

South Africa suffers, by international standards, from relatively high homicide rates, and is in the top ten of countries with the highest homicide rates worldwide.

This context is important to understand the central argument mounted by Brendan O'Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi in their study entitled 'Homicide in black and white', which points out that in the United States, African-Americans are six times as likely than white Americans to die at the hands of a murderer, and roughly seven times as likely to murder someone.

The study, published in the 'Journal of Urban Economics', goes on to point out that young black men are 15 times more likely to be murdered than young white men, in the USA.

Brendan O'Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi argue that any satisfactory explanation must take into account the fact that murder can have a 'pre-emptive' motive: people sometimes kill simply to avoid being killed.

As a result, disputes can escalate dramatically in environments perceived to be dangerous, resulting in self-fulfilling expectations of violence. This in turn might explain, some of the dramatic racial disparities in rates of murder and victimization in the USA.

Their argument may also explain a key missing ingredient to understanding the Oscar Pistorius trial.

Given South Africa has an extremely high homicide rate, the argument would be: with a higher expectation of being killed, people are more likely to pre-emptively respond violently. High homicide rates generate vicious, violent, spirals upwards.

Pistorius' defence may have hinged on suggesting that his violent response arose out of terror from an apparent intruder in his house.

Whatever anyone may think about his performance in the court, or on the witness stand, this study suggests that in order to understand this killing, you need to grasp the wider psychological context.

Brendan O'Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi point out in their study that homicide is the second most important reason for the racial gap in life expectancy in the USA: eliminating homicide would do more to equalize black and white life expectancy, than eradicating any other cause of death except cardiovascular disease.

Brendan O'Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi contend that this extraordinary concentration of homicides in the black community in the USA cannot be fully understood, without recognizing that murder is a crime for which there is usually a powerful 'pre-emptive' motive: people can kill simply to avoid being killed.

This is the case in war, the authors point out; and is also the case in some urban war zones.

Brendan O'Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi consider a central puzzle at the heart of much homicide and the key enigma in the Oscar Pistorius case; ordinary people in normal circumstances have little or nothing to gain from killing others, so high murder rates occur only if some are killing for self-protection.

The logic of their argument is that the more unsafe the environment, the more likely is an inhabitant to kill. The level of hazard is itself fuelled by the levels of perceived danger or fear. Murders make for tension, and in jumpy circumstances people may be quicker to murder.

This study was in part inspired by a branch of economics and psychology referred to as 'game theory': much of life involves being in an interactive predicament with at least one other person, referred to as a "game". To play games well, you need to take the other person's perspective - how would I react if I did this, as opposed to that?

A key idea that inspired this study is that incomplete information about the preferences of others can result in 'pre-emptive' killing, even when both disputing parties prefer peaceful resolution.

The eminent American Economist Thomas Schelling famously used game theory to explain how nuclear annihilation could be an inevitable outcome of a Cold War, even if neither party desired it. From his book 'The Strategy of Conflict', published in 1960, comes an example that appears remarkably relevant to the Oscar Pistorius predicament:

"If I go downstairs to investigate a noise at night, with a gun in my hand, and find myself face to face with a burglar who has a gun in his hand, there is a danger of an outcome that neither of us desires. Even if he prefers to just leave quietly, and I wish him to, there is danger that he may think I want to shoot, and shoot first."

Brendan O'Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi found evidence in their study, published in 2010, to support their central proposition that murder can be 'pre-emptive'- driven by the fear of being killed. Those whose own deaths are less likely to be investigated vigorously (Black people in the USA) will as a result have more fear of being killed, and may therefore be more likely to kill pre-emptively.

This means that social groups with high victimization rates will also have high murder rates.

An interesting implication of this analysis, pointed out by the authors, is that if crimes involving black victims were to be more aggressively investigated and prosecuted: (1) black murder and victimisation rates would fall, (2) pre-emptive killing between blacks and whites would fall, and (3) white murder and victimization rates would fall.

What you end up believing about the Oscar Pistorius trial, hinges on your view of who, or what, he supposed was behind that bathroom door, and what was reasonable to consider, given the circumstances.