Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Do Peruvians Have to Fear from Joran Van der Sloot?

Joran Van der Sloot confessed on Monday to the murder of a Peruvian woman.  If the name doesn't ring a bell*, perhaps the name Natalee Holloway will.  She's the American who disappeared on a high school graduation trip to Aruba in 2005. Van der Sloot and his brother both spent time in jail as suspects in her murder, but were eventually released.  Van der Sloot has apparently admitted that, on May 30 of this year (coincidentally exactly 5 years since Holloway was last seen), he murdered Stephany Flores Ramirez, 21, after he found her looking through his computer at files about Holloway.

The Peruvian media is all over this case.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, newspapers in Lima are calling Van der Sloot a "psychopath" and a "monster."  Perhaps we can understand why.  CSR also reports that the papers are drawing a connection to other murders of women by foreign men, and warning young women to be careful.  The implication is that foreign men, as a group, are dangerous, and that Van der Sloot is the prime example.

Aside from selling newspapers, there is a good reason why people make this sort of generalization at moments like this.  Our brains are wired to look for patterns and connections among different stimuli.  In nature, the ability to notice what signals that a predator is about to strike is very important for survival, so it's not surprising that humans evolved to have this ability and this tendency.  When something bad happens, we automatically look for the pattern that will warn us the next time and, hopefully, save us from the next predator.

The problem here is that we also tend to see patterns that are completely irrelevant, and to attribute meaning to them.  In this instance, the Peruvian press has hit upon the pattern that Van der Sloot, and some other suspects and convicted murderers, are all foreigners.  They extrapolate from that the idea that women should be careful of foreigners.  The problem is that being foreign is not what made these men murderers.  I'm not familiar with the crime statistics in Lima, but my guess is that there are many more murders of women by Peruvian men, just going by sheer numbers.  Nobody is suggesting that women stay away from Peruvian men, or from all men, though.  Those aren't interesting patterns for our brains to latch onto -- they're not specific enough.  Foreign men are.

Being wary of foreign men in this situation makes about as much sense as being wary of blonde men, or men with short hair, or men who are 6 feet tall.  All of these things may describe Van der Sloot, but none of them is a remotely reliable signal that someone is a murderer.  We could also suggest that women should avoid men whose first name starts with J, or who have three parts to their last name.  Somehow, we manage to understand that these patterns are meaningless.  The pattern of people being from a foreign country, however, also taps into some deeply rooted fears of the unknown and biases against the "other," and so newspapers can get away with publishing what is almost certainly an equally meaningless theory.

It is probably a good idea for women to be careful, period.  They should probably be especially careful around people who are larger and stronger than they are who they don't know -- often this will be men who are relative strangers.  Where someone is from is not a useful piece of information in avoiding psychopaths.  It's too bad, really.  The world would be a lot safer if picking out the predators was that easy.

* Once again I've violated my rule about not naming perpetrators.  This story is only getting press, however, because of who the perpetrator is, so it seemed to make sense to publish his name.


Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle