Professor: Violence has decreased

By Catherine Robertson Souter
December 1st, 2015

Ask the person sitting next to you on the subway if the world is less safe than when they were younger. Most likely he will say yes and start railing about terrorist acts, gun deaths, car accidents, domestic abuse cases and random acts of violence that we are bombarded with on the nightly news.

The woman on the other side will tell you how kids can’t even play outside anymore with the risk of kidnappings and molestation.

But, is the world really more dangerous? Is violence on the increase?

The answer, according to Steven Pinker, Ph.D., a Johnstone professor of psychology at Harvard University, is no. In his 2010 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” Pinker points out the many ways violence has decreased both over the course of human history and throughout the last 100 years. In a recent article in The Guardian, Pinker updated charts on the trends in violence showing that, in most categories, violence has either held steady or continued its decline since 2009.

New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson-Souter spoke with Pinker about his work and about the reasons, from a psychological point of view that man has continued to turn away from what some consider his more violent nature.

Q: Why did you choose to write this book?
A: I became aware of a number of trends that pointed to declines of violence, facts about our history that few people appreciate. In a previous book, “The Blank Slate,” I noted that the very idea that we have any innate tendencies is often resisted because if you acknowledge the dark side of human nature, you are resigning yourself to the fact that there is no need to try to improve society if people are just rotten to the core and will screw up the world no matter what you do.

I argued that there is no incompatibility between believing in human nature and holding out the hope for social improvement because, in fact, the world has improved. I cited a couple of trends I was aware of such as the fact that violence has declined by about a factor of 35 since the Middle Ages, slavery was abolished, the communist empire collapsed non-violently.

I started hearing from political scientists and historians pointing out many other historical declines of violence.

Sitting on all these data that people had sent me helped me realize that most people’s understanding of the state of the world is exactly backwards and that it would be valuable not only to apprise the world of the reality but then, as a psychologist, to try explain it.

Q:  Not to sum up your work in too short a blurb, but how would you explain it?

A:  I think we have implemented norms and institutions that make the violence-inhibiting parts of human nature more engaged. These include a democratic government which prevents people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself and the rise of commerce which makes it cheaper to buy things than to steal them and which makes people more valuable to you alive than dead.

I point to the growth of technologies that expands our sense of empathy like journalism and fiction and movies and TV shows that encourage people to put themselves in the shoes of people unlike themselves and therefore make it harder to demonize or dehumanize those other people.

And for the growth of reason in science and institutions of learning and expertise that allows us to treat violence as a problem to be solved and to implement violence reduction measures like a criminal justice system, international peacekeepers, and anger management therapy.

Q:  For all the tendency towards violence, obviously there is a big part of human nature that wants peace and harmony, that doesn’t want to live in a violent society.

A:  There are two different things there; certainly we don’t want to be victims of violence, so that sets up a problem to be solved, but then we also have the means to solve the problem by thinking up institutions like the rule of law. We are becoming less willing to inflict harm, less likely to want to go to a public hanging or a public disembowelment.

Q:  I was in Rome recently and reminded of what was considered entertainment then. They rationalized the brutality by putting criminals convicted to die in the arena and allowing them to earn their freedom. Today, we watch all kinds of brutality on the screens in our living room and rationalize it by saying, “oh, it’s not real.” Are we really that far progressed?

A:  I discussed the Coliseum games in the first chapter of the book. In terms of what we are willing to accept, there is a world of difference. It is just pixels that get harmed instead of sentient beings. The fact that we can get some pleasure out of watching violence without anyone suffering is an example of the kinds of human advancement that the book is about.

I do think we have the same enjoyment of violence but only as long as we know it is not real. The thirst for violence remains but at the same time we have the repugnance to actual violence that makes us insist that it is only simulated.

That is the big difference between someone watching the Hunger Games today and a Roman citizen sitting in the Coliseum 2,000 years ago.

Q:  Have there been further changes since you first wrote the book?

A:  There is one category that has gotten a bit worse and that is civil war but it has only taken the world back to where it was in the year 2000. The rate of civil war still is nowhere near as high as it was in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. All the other categories have either held their own or gotten still better.

Q:  If you were to predict the future by what is going on, what would you tell people to expect? Does it keep getting better until we live in a Star Trek world where everyone is at peace?

A:  No, I don’t think violence will ever disappear altogether. There will always be some hotheads who lose their temper in a bar or disaffected young men who will form a terrorist group. But the rates can go a lot lower.

There is currently a program to try to reduce global homicide by 50 percent in the next 30 years and I don’t see why that should not be possible. There are global campaigns to reduce violence against women and children and in the past, global campaigns have succeeded in significant change. I think capital punishment could very well disappear from the face of the earth in the same way that human sacrifice disappeared.  

I think interstate war, one country against another, may some day cease to exist. I think that civil wars and terrorism will be with us for quite a bit longer. Civil war because the ones that are going on now are not going to be resolved any time soon. I think there will always be terrorism because it is tempting to gain a lot of publicity without much expense.

Q:  What do you recommend readers take away from this conversation?

A:   My advice is to take a more data-oriented, evidence-based approach to the world, to base your opinion not on anecdotes or ideology but on the most complete available data. I would like to see that as a change in journalism and in education and in the culture of every day conversation. I think people need to get more into the habit of looking up available data before forming an opinion. 

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