Nature/ Nurture in Rhythm Zero

In 1974 Serbian Performance artist Marina Ambrovic performed an art piece that almost ended up being her last. In a small art gallery, a seemingly timid and careful crowd turned on Ambrovic and almost killed her. What caused the audience to become so violent so quickly? Is crowd behavior or individual behavior to blame?

The piece was called ‘Rhythm Zero’. In it, Marina stood in the middle of a completely empty gallery, next to her was a table with 72 different objects. The objects all had some sort of relation to either pain or pleasure, and ranged from clothing accessories to a rose with thorns, knife, and the last item was a pistol with one bullet. On the table was a note card that read:
There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
Performance.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.

At first the crowd was very timid and would only touch her or kiss her or hug her, but soon the crowd got more physical and began moving her around the room, ripping off her clothes and stuck the rose thorns into her skin. At one point, someone put the loaded gun in Marinas hand and pointed it to her head (to see if she would kill herself), but another audience member took the gun away and put it back on the table. After six hours (from 8pm-2am) the curator came out to say the performance was over and Marina took a step towards the crowd – everyone ran away, afraid.

Here is a short video (3 minute) video about her performance.

How do nature and nurture affect our behavior? Can genetics explain the violent behavior exhibited by the crowd?

First, it is important to define nature and nurture within the context of the art gallery and performance (using their assumptive definitions):

Nurture (assuming it is what we learn): In our culture we are taught to be kind to one another, and we learn to not do bad things to other people. There is great emphasis on ‘the golden rule’ all throughout the developmental stages of life. We are also taught to not be disruptive in an art gallery – to not touch the displays, not be loud and rambunctious, not damage any of the art.

Nature (assuming it is the environment): An art gallery is a calm and quiet place – A place where people keep to themselves. In an art gallery, thought is more prominent than action. It is a constructive place where people can seek out serenity and (positive) influence.

Both of these ‘definitions’ were (more or less) ignored (forgotten) by the gallery audience for the six-hour period of the performance.


In her speech, Rebecca Saxe explains that the region of the brain that is responsible for thinking about what other people are thinking about is the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) region. She explains that, in adults, this region is fully developed and specialized to do it one job; however, the judgement of this region can be influenced by outside ‘forces’. This is to say that a change in nature can alter the way our brain transmits information and can shift our judgments in this region (affects what we have learned).

We learn our morals starting a young age. Thorough the development of the RTPJ these morals become more refined and specialised. But this refinement is permanent and can be altered depending on different circumstances. One circumstance that many scientists like to research is what is known as crowd mentality. Robert Sapolsky talks about seven things/ traits that make humans unique (from other animals). One of the possible factors that may have contributed to the crowd behavior in the art gallery is what Sapolsky calls our unique aggression – or in other words, our ability to be passive and ‘look the other way’. This ability grows stronger when we act in a crowd environment, because in our minds we can actually push the blame onto all of the other humans around us at that time.

I believe that the reason why the art gallery audience got so out of hand so quickly is due to what Sapolsky refers to as the lag-time between behavior and reward (or in this case punishment). It has been found that after a human behaves, that human gets an increase in endorphins in their system due to the anticipation of reward for that behavior. The longer the anticipation period (lag-time), the more increased the endorphins get. The audience was aware that by doing something awful to Marina they would face a huge punishment, but she said that they would not be punished in her introduction. I think that this opened the doors for some people to experiment with their behavior towards her. When the expected punishment did not come (immediately), their endorphins increased and they became more ‘excited’ and began to do worse and worse acts to her/ her body. As others noticed there was no punishment, they too had an increase in endorphins and joined those who were doing bad acts. Each hour of lag-time led to an increase in endorphins and a worsening of behavior. And the reason why the whole audience ran at the end is because they were finally faced with possible punishment.

At the moment when the Marina steps forward and the crowd thinks they are about to be confronted, all of the endorphins decrease and the brain is no longer as susceptible to changes in nature. The RTPJ goes back to functioning normally, which led the audience members to remember, and recognize in others, the one thing they had learned as a child – the golden rule. Out of fear of having done onto them what they had done to her, the audience (collectively) panicked and fled.

Despite our unique ability to feel extreme empathy, humans are able to be very destructive towards each other. The factors in nature that I think apply in this situation is that it was a good-sized gallery audience (not just a few independent people) and that nothing was interfering, or would interfere with their behavior. In nurture, I think the most important factor is that they were told that they would not be held responsible for their actions. They were allowed to exist freely in the contradiction of the more awful something is to do to a person, the more it must be done. They were allowed the opportunity (through lag-time) to put aside their morals and just act however they chose. This is to say that while we think we are very empathic beings; our empathy is actually one of our lowest priorities. Emily Singer says that “as social animals, we depend on others for survival.”; and while that may be true, it is important to recognize that we do operate in units and that while we need each other, we are also quick to turn on one member of a group if the right circumstance of nature/ nurture occur to stimulate and the alter the information sent in our brains.

If you are interested in reading more about this, check out this bloggers post on Rhythm Zero’s relationship to freudian theory.

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7 thoughts on “Nature/ Nurture in Rhythm Zero

  1. This was a really great blog post. It was interesting to explore the differences and similarities between nature and nurture and how overlooked each of them are. Besides the content, the video was a really awesome touch to the post. It made it a little bit easier to understand. I also really like the way your site is set up in general. It was very easy to follow and read. Awesome job!!!

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    1. Thank you! That clip is part of a larger documentary about her, but it does a nice job of explaining the performance and showing you all of the elements of the performance. I’m glad you liked it!

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  2. ‘Nature’ refers to our genes, genetic makeup, whereas ‘Nurture’ refers to the environment, our culture, learning experiences and other external factors. How would you put in a consideration of genetic influences into your analysis here? Also- I find the idea that humans might get positive endorphin rewards from being violent disturbing. And that the only thing keeping us from being more violent are societal rules and expectations. You may be right! But it is still disturbing to me. The evolutionary basis of human violence is really intriguing – I’d love to see you delve more into this.

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    1. I will definitely have to do more research to see how I can add genetics to this article. I feel like genetics does play a role in how the crowd responded and produced different extremes (ex. one man putting the gun to her head and another taking it away because that – according to them – was pushing it too far). Genetic involvement in violence really fascinates me too! I’m going to be doing another blog that is inspired by one of my favourite short articles, ‘Why we crave horror movies’ by Stephen King and other articles I’ve read about the ‘murder gene’ (big debate on whether or not it exists). It’s very disturbing but also super interesting to do research on.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading the part you included with Sapolsky’s unique aggression example. It made me think of how people have acted at recent protests across the country. I definitely see how people will act a certain way when the nature of the crowd atmosphere allows them to feel it’s acceptable to act out where otherwise they wouldn’t do so. Having others engaging in similar acts alongside someone may give them courage or a false sense of justification in doing it too. I also found the lag time between behavior and reward/punishment section to be quite informative. Great post!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I also really enjoy applying these topics/ lectures/ information to our very present day situation – it’s super interesting to think about. ‘Crowd mentality’ is such a complex topic – but we deal with it every single and I find the whole thing to be very cool and captivating. Thanks for reading!! 🙂

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