Following the recent shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers, some locals want the school demolished. Texas State Sen. Roland Gutierrez said President Joe Biden offered to help the school district secure a federal grant for the building’s demolition.
This is not uncommon. In many similar cases, buildings were demolished, abandoned or reused in the aftermath of a tragedy. Following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, that school was destroyed and rebuilt elsewhere on the same property at a cost of US $ 50 million. And in 1996, the town of Gloucester in England bought the house where a couple, Fred and Rosemary West, raped, tortured and murdered 12 young women. The town leveled the property to the ground, burned all the wood, powdered every brick and dumped the rubbish in a secret place before turning the yard into a park.
On a visceral level, it seems obvious: Most people will be uncomfortable doing business at the site of a massacre as usual. But as an anthropologist studying some of the most meaningful human experiences, I know that human responses that feel obvious can often be difficult to explain. Why would the situation make it better to tear it down and rebuild it? The answer lies in human psychology.
Concepts of infection
Research suggests that we as humans are naturally born essentialists. That is, we intuitively think of objects as having certain intangible inner qualities or essences, which can be transmitted through contact. For example, participants in an experiment conducted by psychologists Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin refused to wear a sweater belonging to a serial killer, even though they were lucky enough to wear an identical sweater belonging to someone else .
These intuitions can also be observed outside the laboratory. A study conducted in Hong Kong, for example, looked at the effect of death on property prices. As it turns out, when a murder, suicide or fatal accident occurred in a house, its market value dropped by as much as 25%, and even nearby properties lost some of their value.
Early anthropologists described it as a form of “magical thinking”. The Scottish anthropologist James Frazer argued that this type of reasoning is based on two basic principles that are common in all human societies. The first is the “law of agreement”, the idea that physical similarities imply a deeper connection. This explains the belief found in many cultures that stabbing a doll that looks like a person can harm that person.
The second principle is what Frazer called the “law of contamination.” It states that when two things come into contact, they transfer part of their property to each other. That’s why John Lennon’s piano sold for more than $ 2 million, and why the U.S. Rep. Bob Brady took the glass of water from which Pope Francis drank during a 2015 speech to the US Congress and later shared it with his family. The assumption is that some of the characteristics of the person who once came in contact with the object will rub off. “Anything that touches the pope is blessed,” Brady said.
If these beliefs and behaviors are based on wrong assumptions, should we give them humor, or should we dismiss them as irrational? Again, human psychology can provide the answer.
The power of symbolism
We are a symbolic species. We experience things around us based not only on their physical characteristics. We care about where they come from, their history, their commitments and what they stand for. It goes beyond what we think about those things – it also affects how we deal with them.
Psychologists George Newman and Paul Bloom designed an experiment to see if beliefs about an object’s infectivity could be changed. They asked people how much they would pay to buy a sweater that was previously owned by a loved one. As they expected, most were willing to shell out significantly more than what a brand new sweater would cost.
But here’s the twist: When they were told it would be washed thoroughly before being handed over to them, people were less interested in buying the sweater. Conversely, when the researchers asked them the same question about a famous person they despised, participants were willing to pay a higher price after the item was sterilized. It seems that physical purification will be considered as the removal of a part of the jersey’s essence.
Cultural traditions around the world use these intuitions to soothe people’s fears and anxieties. In some cases, the washing of the body is meant to purify the soul, and this is what happens at baptism. In other cases, purification comes through the destruction of the evil substance or its proxy.
On New Year’s Day, people in different parts of Latin America build life-size images, or “muñecos,” that look like wicked things and persons: corrupt government officials, villains, personal enemies, and even the coronavirus. Then they set them on fire. Their demise is meant to drive out their polluting power and symbolize hope for the coming year.
Since these practices rely on universal parts of human psychology, it makes sense for people who are not also religious. Take, for example, the attendees of Burning Man, an annual festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Apparently it’s a crowd as secular as they come: only 5% of them identify themselves as religious. Yet thousands of people flock to a temporary temple where they leave behind memorabilia related to some of their most traumatic experiences. They then gather to watch the temple burn to the ground, many of them in tears, with all the bad memories together.
There is a powerful cathartic aspect to those cleansing rituals. Symbolic gestures often speak to our psyche in ways that no rational action can ever speak to our intellect. In times of tragedy, it is important to acknowledge this fundamental aspect of our humanity. For even if the pain remains, knowing that a tangible reminder of it has been undone can be soothing.