Turtle Study Reveals 'Dark Side' Of Human Nature, Impulse To Harm Innocents

Kim LaCapria

A turtle study done recently at a Southern university provided insight into some unpleasant aspects of the human condition, researchers indicate.

The turtle study is, of course, just one cross-section of the way humans react when they believe no one is looking -- but as what was an unexpectedly sad and unpleasant news month winds up, don't look to this one for a pick-me-up. (Important caveat: no actual turtles were harmed in the commission of the study.)

The turtle study involved the commonly slow-moving creatures, animals that are disappearing in their habitats as the environment they occupy becomes ever less safe. And now we may have a glimpse into part of the reason why -- apparently, researchers discovered, many people think turtles are fun to run down with cars on purpose.

22-year-old senior in Clemson's School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences Nathan Weaver was hoping to glean information on how best to help turtles get across busy roads safely when his research began, but it turned into almost something else entirely when the data was collected.

Weaver got a very lifelike rubber box turtle and positioned it on a well-trafficked road near his campus, observing drivers over the course of an hour to gauge their actions. Although it's not clear how many drivers came and went while the turtle decoy was positioned, at least seven of them deliberately swerved in hopes of running the turtle over.

What's more? "Several" more drivers attempted and failed to kill the turtle in the same manner, but were unable to get their cars to trample the decoy turtle in time. And while the study's results may have surprised Weaver, psychology experts say they are in keeping with what has been revealed in similar research before it.

Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor, explains that humans sometimes subconsciously express a desire to be a "dominant" animal, and said:

"They aren't thinking, really. It is not something people think about. It just seems fun at the time ... It is the dark side of human nature."

Weaver says that even if one of 50 cars swerves to pulverize a turtle, that can have a large impact:

"One hit in 50 cars is pretty significant when you consider it might take a turtle 10 minutes to cross the road."
"[Turtles] seem so helpless and cute ... I want to stop and help them. My kids want to stop and help them. My wife will stop and help turtles no matter how much traffic there is on the road. I can't understand the idea why you would swerve to hit something so helpless as a turtle."