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Steven Pinker on Violence


Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.4, July/August 2013

The Better Angels of Our Nature book cover

Acclaimed Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Steven Pinker was interviewed by Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney in a rare live edition of Point of Inquiry, the flagship podcast of our Center for Inquiry. This special episode was recorded before a live audience as part of the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Pinker, a longtime Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow, is the author of eight books, including How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Language Instinct, and most recently The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. The interview focuses on the premise of his latest book: that we now live in the least violent and most peaceful period of human history, particularly surprising in light of tragic recent events in Newtown, Connecticut, and Boston. Here is the majority of that interview.

Indre Viskontas: What inspired you to write a book about violence?

It’s a natural topic for anyone interested in human nature. The question, “Is our species innately violent and war-loving, or innately peaceful and cooperative?” goes back literally hundreds of years, maybe thousands. So it naturally falls under the category of psychology.

In my case, it began with my books How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate where I advocated the idea that there is such a thing as human nature—some parts of which can be rather nasty [See Pinker, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 2003]. We have urges like revenge and dominance that can erupt in violence. I had to anticipate an objection I knew would come: If we do have these tendencies, does that mean that we also have to have a fatalistic attitude toward war, peace, and violence? The worry is: if violence is in the genes—if we’re killer apes and we have homicidal DNA—then there’s nothing you can do about it.

But this is a non sequitur. The answer is no, we don’t have to be fatalistic. For one thing, human nature is a complicated system. Even if we do have urges that can result in violence, we also have systems that can inhibit our urges toward violence. Whether we behave violently depends on which part of human nature prevails, and this balance can change with the circumstances.

In any case, there can’t be a theoretical debate over whether we’re doomed to a constant rate of violence, because when you open up the history books you find that rates of violence change. I gave a few examples of cases that I knew of at the time (this was in the 1990s), of how rates of violence had come down. For example, from the Middle Ages to the present, at least in England, there has been a thirty-five-fold decrease in the rate of homicide. Or if you look at the kind of life that our ancestors presumably lived—a foraging lifestyle, without a government and police force—the rates of death in tribal warfare were really, really high—higher than even in the twentieth century with our world wars.

I made these observations, and I noted that there can be no a priori debate about whether rates of violence can change. History tells us that they can change. A few years later, John Brockman, my literary agent and the proprietor of, asked 150 scientists, philosophers, and writers for a couple of paragraphs on the question, “What are you optimistic about?” I tweaked those relevant sections of previous work and posted them online.

Then I got a slew of correspondence from experts on violence who said, “You really understated the case. There are many other cases where there have been dramatic declines in violence.” These were from scattered scholarly communities that had nothing to do with each other. For example, scholars in international relations who study war and peace said things like, “Gee, you know, it used to be that countries in Europe would start two new wars a year for 500 years. As of 1945, that went to zero.” Military historians have just been astonished at the fact that war between developed countries has pretty much ceased to exist.

Other scholars said, “It’s not just England where the homicide rate plunged since the Middle Ages. It’s also Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia.” Others said, “It’s not just war between rich countries that has declined. If you look at statistics on war worldwide, since 1990, they have been going down, down, down; fewer people are killed in war than ever before.”

Finally, one of my colleagues in the psychology department said, “Well, you could have added that rates of child abuse, approval of spanking, domestic violence—all of them are down.” I realized that no one knew about all of these facts and they’re pretty important.

The arithmetic trend of violence, positive or negative, is a basic fact. Everyone thinks it’s gone up. But in fact, it’s gone down. It also posed two delicious challenges to a psychologist. One is to understand why has there been so much violence in the past; the other is to understand why it has come down. These are the two psychological questions that got me going.

Chris Mooney: You paint the past as a world characterized by brutal violence. What is the causal reason for some kind of change?

There are a number of reasons, in part, because there are a number of causes of violence. Neurobiologists and neuroethologists have long known that there’s no single thing called “aggression”; there are multiple systems in the brain that make organisms, including Homo sapiens, aggressive. So you’d expect there to be multiple causes that would drive them down.

I think the first and foremost is government—Hobbes’s Theory of the Leviathan. A state with a monopoly on violence can penalize incentives for aggression and exploitation by imposing penalties that cancel out the anticipated gain. If you are likely to be thrown in jail after robbing a liquor store, then you think twice about doing it. That circumstance makes everyone more peaceful, because not only are you disincentivized from committing aggressive acts, but you know that your enemies are too.

It has a reverberating effect: you no longer have to maintain a belligerent macho stance to deter your enemies, because the government is doing it for you. You no longer have to pursue vengeance after the fact at all costs, because again, you can outsource that to the government. So, explanation number one would be the Leviathan. We see that the remaining zones of violence in the world are also zones of anarchy.

Mooney: But that’s assuming everyone’s being rational: that they are calculating costs and benefits to some extent. But isn’t violence largely emotional?

Yes, that’s right, although the rational incentives and the emotional reactions can play off each other. If you live in a society where there is a rule of law for long enough, it changes your emotions. You become less likely to react with rage if someone gives you the finger or calls you a nasty name. You don’t challenge them to a knife fight; you walk away. In the book, I talk about the interplay between these rational calculations and what you do and don’t do intuitively.

Steven Pinkerphoto credit: Henry Leutwyler

Viskontas: One thing I love about your book is how you couch a lot of these issues within the prisoner’s dilemma framework. Describe how we might apply it to issues such as gun control. There is a vocal set of people saying, “I need a gun because everybody else has a gun; so don’t take away my right to have a gun.” But this then leads to more guns and potentially more violence.

In the book, I allude to a version of the prisoner’s dilemma—I call it the “pacifist’s dilemma.” It has the same structure but with different labels in the cells. I use it as a way of answering the somewhat mysterious question of why multiple historical forces all seem to be pushing rates of violence down.

Chris asked, “What are some of the causes?” and I explained one of them. Among the others are trade and commerce, which, in terms of game theory, has people playing more positive-sum games and few zero- or negative-sum games. If you have networks of trade and exchange, it becomes cheaper to buy stuff than to steal it; and other people become more valuable to you alive than dead. If you have a rise of commerce and trade, the incentives change and people get less violent.

A third cause is the expanding circle of sympathy. As we consume more fiction, history, and journalism, and engage in more person-to-person contact, it becomes a little harder to dehumanize other people. They expand your sense of empathy and decrease your taste for cruelty.

I think the empowerment of women has been a factor. Societies and eras in which women have more rights, and more of a voice, tend to have less macho violence. And reason and science have played a role; as people intellectualize the human condition, they look at violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a game to be won.

I list these different reasons that violence has gone down. It’s not a reductionistic, simplistic theory. But why have different forces all pushed in the same direction? Is there some kind of mysterious arc that bends toward justice?

The answer is no. There’s a more mundane explanation—and now we get to the pacifist’s dilemma—which is that violence is, in an objective sense, a really bad thing. It’s a nuisance; it’s a plague; it’s a pestilence. Because even though it’s always tempting to an aggressor to exploit a victim, it’s far more damaging to the victim than it is beneficial to the aggressor.

Now over the long run, since aggressors can become victims and vice-versa—empires rise and fall—objectively everyone would be better off if everyone could forswear violence. It really is a better way to live than to blow things up and destroy flesh, and life, and suffer all the other nasty consequences of war. The dilemma is: How do you get the other guy to renounce violence at the same time as you do? This is where the game-theoretic calculation comes in. If I beat my swords into plowshares, and the other guy keeps his as swords, I could find myself at the wrong end of a rather unpleasant confrontation. So how do we both be sure to beat our swords into plowshares at the same time?

That is the human dilemma. It’s like disease or hunger. It’s a part of the human condition that sucks. Fortunately, we are smart, we can gradually, in bits and pieces, try to improve our condition. One of the ways that we do it is to try to incentivize everyone to forswear violence at the same time. The common denominator between these pacifying forces, I suggest, is that they all jigger with the payoffs in the matrix and turn the pacifist’s dilemma into more of a rational actor circumstance in which we all opt for the mutual nonviolence cell.

Mooney: Why does the U.S. seem to be such a violent place compared to other countries?

By a number of criteria, the United States is more violent than other Western democracies. Our rate of homicide is two to five times higher than that of other Western democracies. We start more wars, and thirty-three of the fifty states have capital punishment, which has been abolished everywhere else. The answer, I think, goes back to settlement patterns in American history.

The United States isn’t a country; it’s at least two countries. The rates of violence in the northern and coastal states are still higher than those of Europe, but not as high as those in the West and South. It’s also the blue states that have abolished capital punishment and which tend to be more dovish in foreign policy.

So in part, this is a question about the American South and West. The simplest answer is that they lived in a condition of anarchy until fairly recently, historically speaking. The cliché, “The closing of the American frontier,” refers to an event that took place as recently as in the 1890s.

Often in anarchic societies, you see a culture of honor developing. You have to avenge any insult, regardless of the cost to you, and adopt a belligerent stance, because it’s your only protection. This stance got embedded into southern and western American culture, whereas the Europeans were beaten into submission by their autocratic kings many centuries ago.

Viskontas: How do we get the South or the areas in which there are the most guns to melt their assault rifles and turn them into iPads?

I don’t have an easy answer to that question, because as you point out, the guns are out there. The gun lobby, having created the situation now says, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it and so let’s make it even worse by having even more people get guns to defend themselves against all those people with guns.”

Viskontas: I’m no expert on the statistics behind gun use and gun violence in the U.S., but I’ve noted that there are different ways of looking at these statistics. For example, if you look at the number of gun owners in the U.S. versus, say, Canada, the numbers are pretty equivalent. But the number of guns per owner, well, there’s a huge difference.

That’s an important point that’s absolutely correct. Moreover, consistent with your statistic is that the number of households with guns in the United States has gone down, even though the number of guns has gone up. There are a smaller and smaller number of people who own bigger and bigger arsenals.

Viskontas: This makes me nervous because, of course, our weapons are getting more sophisticated. So even if the overall number of violent people in the population declines, it takes fewer and fewer to inflict more and more damage as we saw in some of these recent mass shootings. How do we fight that growth and these outliers of people who are particularly violent?

I think guns themselves probably aren’t the main place to look for an answer; although of course there are many common-sense gun control measures that any sane person would agree should be implemented. But the U.S.-Europe difference is not just a difference in the availability of guns. If you subtract out all the gun homicides in the United States and you just look at the homicides committed with, say ropes, candlesticks, and daggers, we still kill people at a higher rate.

I don’t want to endorse anything that the NRA says, but there is some truth to the idea that it really is people who kill people rather than guns that kill people. That’s why I think the psychology and sociology of violence is more important than just the weaponry.

In talking about rampage shooters, there’s not much you can do; but to be honest, as far as violence goes, it’s not that much of a problem in the seemingly callous sense of raw numbers. The Sandy Hook shooter killed, what, twenty-six people altogether? But every day in the United States, more than forty people get killed. After all that round-the-clock coverage of Sandy Hook, the cable news networks didn’t say, “Oh, and by the way, we’ve had another Sandy Hook and-a-half today,” and then on Thursday, “We’ve had another Sandy Hook and-a-half today again,” and every single day since then.

Two categories of violence are peculiar in that they generate a massive amount of publicity, discussion, and concern while inflicting relatively little damage. One is rampage shootings, and the other is terrorism. The worst terrorist attack in history, the September 11, 2001, attacks, killed 3,000 people; and in the United States every year, 16,000 people are killed in homicides.

It’s not a coincidence. Why do people blow themselves up? Why do people shoot up a school and then shoot themselves? Well, it’s the only guaranteed way to get the world’s attention.

As Adam Lankford, who just wrote a book on suicide terrorism, points out, let’s say you wanted to become famous nationwide, even worldwide, what could you do to guarantee it? Make a great scientific discovery? Forget that. Compete on American Idol? Uh-uh. There is only one guaranteed way to become famous, and that is to kill a lot of innocent people.

We’ve set up that incentive structure. It’s hard to know how to reverse it.

Viskontas: Is that an argument for the media not covering these mass shootings or these sorts of large events? Or people not paying for the coverage?

I think it is an argument for making news coverage and policy discussion more in line with those statistics—both the round-the-clock coverage of rampage shootings, and the response to terrorism. Our society was turned upside-down, and we started two foreign wars as a response to terrorism.

Mooney: Why do more rights for women mean less aggression in society?

There are several motives for violence, and in some there’s not much of a sex difference. If you’re the head of state, you’re defending your country’s interests among other hostile states. Any woman running a country is going to act in the interests of that country, including waging war when that’s the rational thing to do. That’s the category of “violence as a means to an end”; I don’t expect a sex difference.

But when it comes to stupid, macho violence—knife fights over a parking space, road rage, fights over a pool table, wars over national honor where nothing is at stake except national honor, campaigns of bloodthirsty conquests, and insane wars of aggression—that’s more of a guy thing.

In non-state societies, anthropologists have documented a correlation between competition between societies and the state of women’s rights. Societies that are more egalitarian tend to be less warlike. It’s hard to know what’s cause and effect, but there is a correlation.

The societies that control women, control their reproduction by selling them off as brides, by protecting their chastity, by forcing them to become round-the-clock baby factories tend to have more violence.

Also, in societies where women have more autonomy, the first place they exercise that autonomy is their own sexuality, their own reproduction. In places with women’s rights, women have fewer babies, they have them later, and as a result, those places are less likely to have youth bulges, which are a risk factor for violence.

Another thing that goes along with women’s empowerment is that societies are less likely to murder female newborns or abort female fetuses. If you’ve got lots of babies coming out, and lots of them are boys—well, that leads to trouble down the line. You get youth bulges of unemployed, unattached young men; and that means trouble. Societies where women control their reproduction are societies that have fewer of these youth bulges.

Viskontas: Are there exceptions to the decline in violence, for example, in countries in Africa? And do those cases help explain the decrease?

There are exceptions. It’s not a monotonic [stable, neither increasing nor decreasing] nor uniform worldwide phenomenon. One example is the huge increase in violent crime in the United States and most other Western countries starting in the 1960s. Another is the heyday of genocidal totalitarian regimes in the middle decades of the twentieth century—the glory days of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. A third is the rise in civil wars following decolonization in much of the developing world. And even though rates of war in Africa have gone way down over the last couple of decades, many sub-Saharan African countries still have high rates of homicide.

This is not some mysterious force that just brought violence down monotonically everywhere. But at least some of these exceptions are exceptions that prove the rules. In general, when you have anarchy, you have high rates of violence, so if you precipitously remove government, you end up with violent chaos. In Iraq, just toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime and not putting an effective government in its place opened the ground for a lot of internal violence. Likewise, when the often oppressive, but at least minimally competent colonial governments gave way to utterly incompetent kleptocracies and tribal favoritist regimes, you ended up with a lot of violence in countries in the developing world.

Mooney: What do you think about Jared Diamond’s characterization of tribal societies as in a state of perpetual warfare?

Perpetual warfare is a bit of an exaggeration, but the observation that the rates of death and warfare are very high is correct. I have a chapter in the book where I go over every quantitative estimate I could find from the ethnographic literature, and also from the archaeological literature, on rates of violence in non-state societies. They span a range; not all of the societies are at war all the time; some are more violent than others. But if you look at the average, it’s very high. So Diamond is right. And Napoleon Chagnon, another person who’s been attacked for making such claims, also has the numbers on his side.

Viskontas: Some of the social media we engage in so much now—say, Twitter—put a personality onto people from around the world. I connect with people on Facebook who are in Africa whom I would never have a personal relationship with, but on Facebook, I see pictures of their kids and pictures of their life. And on Twitter, I hear their witty, pithy remarks. Do you think that some of these social media technologies might be pacifying in the end?

I suspect over the long-term they might be, because similar things have happened in the past. One of the puzzles I take up in the book is why in the second half of the eighteenth century, the world made a quantum leap in humanity. That was the era in which countries stopped disemboweling people for criticizing the king and stopped having public executions. The first movements to abolish slavery got traction, debtors’ prisons were abolished, and they stopped burning heretics at the stake. Blood sports like dog fighting were abolished. You had the first articulate statements of women’s rights, of children’s rights, of gay rights, all in the eighteenth century. Our own prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the eighth amendment to the Constitution occurred smack-dab in the middle of this process.

So what happened in the second half of the eighteenth century? Why did the world wake up and suddenly realize, “Hey, you know, there might be something a wee bit wrong with slavery after all, even though we’ve been doing it for thousands of years”?

The most plausible candidate is that the second half of the eighteenth century saw the rise of affordable printed media and the rise of literacy. If you look at what happened before that era—you can’t do experiments, so you do the next best thing and you at least try to identify some exogenous, putative cause that occurs prior in time to the punitive effect—the only one that I was able to find is a massive increase in technologies of cosmopolitanism.

You had national and international post offices— the email and Twitter of the time. You had a huge increase in the economic efficiency of publishing books and pamphlets; you had an expansion of the press. It was cheaper to travel from city to city. These cosmopolitan forces back then, I think, led to increasing humanitarian sensibilities.

There was a second wave of that in the 1950s with the rise of television and electronic media. The Vietnam War was the first war to be brought into people’s living rooms in real time; and it was the first war that had a substantial antiwar movement as it was progressing—which I suspect was not a coincidence.