If after a bad day at work you’ve daydreamed idly about pushing your boss down the stairs, don’t worry – you’re not alone.
In fact, it’s perfectly normal to imagine killing someone – and more than half of us have done it.
Briefly wanting to murder someone may be a good thing, because it could stop us actually doing so, according to an expert on the dark side of humanity.
Criminal psychologist Dr Julia Shaw, an honorary research associate at University College London, said thoughts of killing others were a ‘common phenomenon’ and an entirely human reaction.
She said: ‘There’s been research looking at participants and asking them if they’ve ever fantasised about murdering someone.
‘More than half of people generally say yes, they have fantasised about murdering someone.
‘Popular targets are your boss, other popular targets are ex-partners – the list goes on, you can picture where your fantasies might go.
‘Now of course most of us don’t engage in murder ever, luckily.’
While many of us daydream about killing others, only about 1 per cent of the population are believed to be psychopaths – and only a tiny minority of psychopaths will actually go on to be violent or kill someone.
Some evolutionary psychologists argue that a harmless murder fantasy helps us to function better.
Dr Shaw told the Cheltenham Science Festival: ‘Murder fantasies are an empathy exercise.
‘You think things through, you imagine what the consequences would be like, you imagine what it might be like to actually go through with it… and guess what your decision generally is? – ‘I don’t want to do that, because those are not the consequences I would like’.’
She explained: ‘As human beings we’ve evolved intelligence, this ability to plan and to predict what outcomes might emerge from our behaviour, and that’s a critical piece of humanity.’
However, a note of caution comes from a US study that found daydreaming about violence could harm your own wellbeing.
Researchers, who recruited 139 participants and asked some to imagine behaving violently towards people they hated, found that they were less contented and more likely to get stuck with repetitive thoughts that can be bad for mental health.
But Dr Shaw said murderous thoughts were essential in making sure people acted in accordance with their moral code.
She added: ‘Fantasies and empathy exercises are critical to making good decisions, particularly in situations where you don’t have much time. While things are pretty good – that’s the time to do empathy exercises.
‘Now is the time to wrestle with your morality and do a health check, because you don’t know what the future brings and you don’t know what kind of quick decisions you might make later.’
She also argued that actual killers should not be labelled as ‘evil’, adding: ‘It glazes over nuance, it’s a cop-out, it’s lazy.
‘Calling someone evil is saying, ‘I don’t need to empathise with them, I don’t need to understand them, I don’t need to figure out why I might be similar to them in any way’.
‘You see cases where people have been law-abiding their entire lives and they murder someone – they have a one-minute lapse in judgment and that is now the overriding feature of their life.’