The Better Angels of Our Nature – Part 4

The Better Angels of Our Nature - Part 4

In the former posts regarding the former chapters of The Better Angels of Our Nature we tried to show how wrong Pinker’s main argument is regarding the decline of violence mainly since in some cases his data is partial and since the most important figures are totally absent.

However, with the 8th chapter of the book called Inner Demons, where Pinker broadly details how naturally violent humans are, unfortunately we largely agree. We find it important, so we bring extracts from this chapter here, along with our remarks.

Pinker’s reviewal of humans’ violence starts with the very early age that violence starts:

“The psychologist Richard Tremblay has measured rates of violence over the course of the life span and shown that the most violent stage of life is not adolescence or even young adulthood but the aptly named terrible twos… “Babies do not kill each other, because we do not give them access to knives and guns. The question . . . we’ve been trying to answer for the past 30 years is how do children learn to aggress. [But] that’s the wrong question. The right question is how do they learn not to aggress.”

Another study he mentions is about the universality of violence which was conducted by psychologists Douglas Kenrick and David Buss, who have posed questions about killing fantasies, to a demographic group that is known to have exceptionally low rates of violence—university students—and were stunned at the outcome. Between 70 and 90 percent of the men, and between 50 and 80 percent of the women, admitted to having at least one homicidal fantasy in the preceding year.

Pinker describes and explains different brain systems that relate to violence. For example the difference between the Fear System and the Rage System:
“The Fear and Rage circuits are distinct, connecting different nuclei in each of these organs, but their physical proximity reflects the ease with which they interact. Mild fear can trigger freezing or flight, but extreme fear, combined with other stimuli, can trigger an enraged defensive attack. Forward panic or rampage in humans may involve a similar handoff from the Fear system to the Rage system.”

And about the connection between panic and rage:
“When an aggressive coalition has stalked or faced off against an opponent in a prolonged state of apprehension and fear, then catches the opponent in a moment of vulnerability, fear turns to rage, and the men will explode in a savage frenzy. A seemingly unstoppable fury drives them to beat the enemy senseless, torture and mutilate the men, rape the women, and destroy their property. A forward panic is violence at its ugliest. It is the state of mind that causes genocides, massacres, deadly ethnic riots, and battles in which no prisoners are taken.“

Pinker also specifies some of the many researches in social psychology such as Stanly Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, Leon Festinger, Albert Bandura, Herbert Kelman and others, that shows how easy it is for humans to torment other humans.
He mentions some of the less known details about Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority:
“Before he ran the experiment, Milgram polled his colleagues, students, and a sample of  psychiatrists on how far they thought the participants would go when an experimenter instructed them to shock a fellow participant. The respondents unanimously predicted that few would exceed 150 volts (the level at which the victim demands to be freed), that just 4 percent would go up to 300 volts (the setting that bore the warning “Danger: Severe Shock”), and that only a handful of psychopaths would go all the way to the highest shock the machine could deliver (the setting labeled “450 Volts—XXX”). In fact, 65 percent of the participants went all the way to the maximum shock, long past the point when the victim’s agonized protests had turned to an eerie silence. And they might have kept on shocking the presumably comatose subject (or his corpse) had the experimenter not brought the proceedings to a halt. The percentage barely budged with the sex, age, or occupation of the participants, and it varied only a small amount with their personalities.”

On Bystander Apathy:

“The psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané conducted a set of ingenious studies suspecting that groups of people might fail to respond to an emergency that would send an isolated person leaping to action because in a group, everyone assumes that if no one else is doing anything, the situation couldn’t be all that dire. In one experiment, as a participant was filling out a questionnaire, he or she heard a loud crash and a voice calling out from behind a partition: “Oh . . . my foot . . . I . . . can’t move it; oh . . . my ankle . . . I can’t get this thing off me.” Believe it or not, if the participant was sitting with a confederate who continued to fill out the questionnaire as if nothing was happening, 80 percent of the time the participant did nothing too.”

On the famous Stanford prison experiment:
“People don’t even need to witness other people behaving callously to behave in uncharacteristically callous ways. It is enough to place them in a fictive group that is defined as being dominant over another one. In another classic psychology-experiment-  cummorality- play (conducted in 1971, before committees for the protection of human subjects put the kibosh on the genre), Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, divided the participants at random into “prisoners” and “guards,” and even got the Palo Alto police to arrest the prisoners and haul them to the campus hoosegow. Acting as the prison superintendent, Zimbardo suggested to the guards that they could flaunt their power and instill fear in the prisoners, and he reinforced the atmosphere of group dominance by outfitting the guards with uniforms, batons, and mirrored sunglasses while dressing the prisoners in humiliating smocks and stocking caps. Within two days some of the guards took their roles too seriously and began to brutalize the prisoners, forcing them to strip naked, clean toilets with their bare hands, do push-ups with the guards standing on their backs, or simulate sodomy. After six days Zimbardo had to call off the experiment for the prisoners’ safety. Decades later Zimbardo wrote a book that analogized the unplanned abuses in his own faux prison to the unplanned abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, arguing that a situation in which a group of people is given authority over another group can bring out barbaric behavior in individuals who might never display it in other circumstances.”


And an updated version for Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority:

“Milgram ran his experiments in the 1960s and early 1970s, and as we have seen, many attitudes have changed since then. It’s natural to wonder whether Westerners today would still obey the instructions of an authority figure to brutalize a stranger. The Stanford Prison Experiment is too bizarre to replicate exactly today, but thirty-three years after the last of the obedience studies, the social psychologist Jerry Burger figured out a way to carry out a new one that would pass ethical muster in the world of 2008. He noticed that in Milgram’s original studies, the 150-volt mark, when the victim first cries out in pain and protest, was a point of no return. If a participant didn’t disobey the experimenter then, 80 percent of the time he or she would continue to the highest shock on the board. So Burger ran Milgram’s procedure but broke off the experiment at the 150-volt mark, immediately explaining the study to the participants and preempting the awful progression in which so many people tortured a stranger over their own misgivings. The question is: after four decades of fashionable rebellion, bumper stickers that advise the reader to Question Authority, and a growing historical consciousness that ridicules the excuse “I was only following orders,” do people still follow the orders of an authority to inflict pain on a stranger? The answer is that they do. Seventy percent of the participants went all the way to 150 volts and so, we have reason to believe, would have continued to fatal levels if the experimenter had permitted it. On the bright side, almost twice as many people disobeyed the experimenter in the 2000s as did in the 1960s (30 percent as compared to 17.5 percent), and the figure might have been even higher if the diverse demographics of the recent study pool had been replaced by the white-bread homogeneity of the earlier ones. But a majority of people will still hurt a stranger against their own inclinations if they see it as part of a legitimate project in their society.”

And about the horrible indispensability of tribalism:
“The dark side of our communal feelings is a desire for our own group to dominate another group, no matter how we feel about its members as individuals. In a set of famous experiments, the psychologist Henri Tajfel told participants that they belonged to one of two groups defined by some trivial difference, such as whether they preferred the paintings of Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky. He then gave them an opportunity to distribute money between a member of their group and a member of the other group; the members were identified only by number, and the participants themselves had nothing to gain or lose from their choice. Not only did they allocate more money to their instant groupmates, but they preferred to penalize a member of the other group (for example, seven cents for a fellow Klee fan, one cent for a Kandinsky fan) than to benefit both individuals at the expense of the experimenter (nineteen cents for a fellow Klee fan, twenty-five cents for a Kandinsky fan). A preference for one’s group emerges early in life and seems to be something that must be unlearned, not learned. Developmental psychologists have shown that preschoolers profess racist attitudes that would appall their liberal parents, and that even babies prefer to interact with people of the same race and accent.”

But the core of the chapter is Pinker’s definition of violence, which is much more complex and multi-dimensional than the one presented by the Seville statement on violence, Ashley Montague and Paul Chappell, and probably most of the public.

On the basis of the social psychologist Roy Baumeister analysis of violence in his book Evil – inside human violence and cruelty, Pinker divides his analysis into 4 different categories with 4 different neurological manifestations.

“Predation may also be called exploitative, instrumental, or practical violence. Its perpetrators have no destructive motive like hate or anger. They simply take the shortest path to something they want, and a living thing happens to be in the way.”

“The dark side of our communal feelings is a desire for our own group to dominate another group, no matter how we feel about its members as individuals.
The psychologists Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto have proposed that people, to varying degrees, harbor a motive they call social dominance, though a more intuitive term is tribalism: the desire that social groups be organized into a hierarchy, generally with one’s own group dominant over the others. A social dominance orientation, they show, inclines people to a sweeping array of opinions and values, including patriotism, racism, fate, karma, caste, national destiny, militarism, toughness on crime, and defensiveness of existing arrangements of authority and inequality.”

“Revenge is not confined to political and tribal hotheads but is an easily pushed button in everyone’s brains. Revenge is, quite literally, an urge. The neurobiology of revenge begins with the Rage circuit in the midbrain-hypothalamus-amygdala pathway, which inclines an animal who has been hurt or frustrated to lash out at the nearest likely perpetrator”


We were surprised to find that the fourth root is sadism since we considered it as an abnormal and therefore not a generic root feature of violence. But Baumeister’s and Pinker’s analyzation is very interesting and convincing:

“Though it’s painful to admit, human nature comes equipped with at least four motives to take satisfaction in the pain of others. One is a morbid fascination with the vulnerability of living things, a phenomenon perhaps best captured by the word macabre. This is what leads boys to pull the legs off grasshoppers and to fry ants with a magnifying glass.

Another appeal of feeling someone’s pain is dominance. It can be enjoyable to see how the mighty have fallen, especially if they have been among your tormenters. And when one is looking downward instead of upward, it’s reassuring to know that you can exercise the power to dominate others should the need arise. The ultimate form of power over someone is the power to cause them pain at will.

A third occasion for sadism is revenge, or the sanitized third-party version we call justice. The whole point of moralistic punishment is that the wrongdoer suffers for his sins, and we have already seen that revenge can be sweet. Revenge literally turns off the empathic response in the brain (at least among men), and it is consummated only when the avenger knows that the target knows that his suffering is payback for his misdeeds. What better way for the avenger to be certain in that knowledge than to inflict the suffering himself?

Finally, there is sexual sadism. Sadism itself is not a common perversion—among people who indulge in S&M, far more of them are into the M than the S—but milder forms of domination and degradation are not uncommon in pornography. The circuits for sexuality and aggression are intertwined in the limbic system, and both respond to testosterone.”

In that chapter Pinker also mentions historian Christopher Browning’s interviews with Nazi reservists who were ordered to shoot Jews at close range, who revealed that the Nazis’ initial reaction was a physical revulsion to what they were doing. “The reservists did not recollect the trauma of their first murders in the morally colored ways we might expect—neither with guilt at what they were doing, nor with retroactive excuses to mitigate their culpability. Instead they recalled how viscerally upset they were made by the screams, the gore, and the raw feeling of killing people at close range. As Baumeister sums up their testimony, “The first day of mass murder did not prompt them to engage in spiritual soul-searching so much as it made them literally want to vomit.”

That story demonstrates that even what is considered to be a good trait – empathy, can go seriously wrong. Counter intuitive as it may sound, through annoyance and upset, resultant from the victims’ expressions and cries, empathy can induce even greater violence. As can be seen in every undercover footage from factory farms, laboratories and slaughterhouses, animals’ screams don’t make the working humans indifferent but annoy them and so they inflict even more violence.

If empathy was a morally reliable trait, then humans’ sympathy toward pigs would be close or at least closer to humans’ sympathy toward dogs. However, when it comes to victims’ screams, in a recent vicious survey among animal farmers who were asked which is their most hated “farm animal”, the indubitably answer was pigs.


Pinker adds another violence category to Baumeister’s four – ideology:
“it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.”

However, it seems that Pinker’s definition of ideology is very narrow. Ideology is not only totalitarian regimes. Beyond ignoring the atrocities that the United States and the European Leviathans are responsible for in the past and present, Pinker also ignores the fact that they represent an ideology just as much as any other. He ignores the fact that the United States is a capitalistic empire and it doesn’t occur to him that capitalism itself is an ideology just as any other. It is as if he doesn’t count as an ideology a social, political and economic system that he agrees with. Probably since for him ideology is a synonym for something evil or totalitarian. But ideology is something that permeates to every life aspect. It can be seen as the sum of all social believes, ideas and practices activated by humans. By that definition everything is ideological. There are various hegemonic institutions that mediate the rulership to each individual by latent means such as the family institution, religion institutions, mass media of course, and many cultural institutions, ideas and norms. Usually, the more invisible the power and the better it can naturalize itself and become an accepted social custom, the stronger it is. The more visible the power, the more controversial it can be. When the civilians are sure they personally chose their social norms and institutions or that they are mandatory, it is a sign for a deep internalization of the ideology.

Ideology is a very vast and elusive term that it’s unclear where it starts and where it ends, not historically and not in the daily lives of all humans. Pinker’s list of ideological atrocities is very partial. Capitalism’s repertory is no better especially when you count animals, as of course you must.

Even Pinker argues that as opposed to the other four categories of violence, which each has its brain function and expression, ideology doesn’t have a specific one but it scatter all over the brain.

Anyway, it is less important if his scheme is correct or exact, and more important is to show how wide and complex violence is, how deeply rooted in humans’ brains and physiology it is. How natural and inherent it is as opposed to the former thinkers’ perception and even as opposed to how most activists refer to humans’ violence. Even if activists think that humans are naturally violent, they act as if they are theoretically fixable. They are not. And that’s even without saying a word about the most prevalent form of violence… apathy.

Pinker argues that despite these 5 ‘inner demons’, violence has declined and it is thanks to the 4 ‘better angles’. The next part of this review deals with them.

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