Steven Pinker on Why Violence Has Declined

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The seemingly endless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, might make us believe we live in the most violent age ever seen. But Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, explains that just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined he looks at human nature, psychology, and history to explain how this has happened.


Steven Pinker

Comments [21]


children need to bully each other? pinker should talk to some of the parents of children who committed suicide because of being relentlessly bullied both in and outside of school. and tea partiers are not violent? talk to former congresswomen giffords.

Jan. 30 2012 07:42 PM
Denise from White Plains, NY

Dr. Pinker's comment about dehumanizing groups targeted for violence has been well documented. It occurred to me that applying the term "fetus" to an unborn child allows people to carry out the violence of abortion. If the numbers of abortions were included in his study, would Dr. Pinker still be able to say our society has grown less violent. And what about the growing violence against women?

Oct. 05 2011 10:17 PM

While violence has declined over the history of humanity, has suffering? If we're looking at that, the answer is somewhat more complicated. Hunter gatherers feud at the drop of a hat and raid and commit mayhem (less often, murder), *but* individuals within each group were mostly equals to each other. Civilization may have dropped the violence rate but it introduced psycho-social suffering through all sorts of stratifications and classes that never existed before. In hindsight we may be glad we did because from this emerged a society that could finally embrace all humans as equals, and which granted legitimacy to individuality, but it was a tortured path we took to get there (and it's not over). Whatever you'll say about violence, suffering is *not* something that you can say, unswervingly, has consistently been reduced. We can only say that we hope that, at some point in the future we'll be able to look back and say, that eventually we figured things out and learned a way to stop dominating each other even while, at the same time, maintaining our individual integrity.

Oct. 05 2011 04:01 PM
rose-ellen caminer from jackson hts.

Was it cognitive disonence I noticed when he recognized that genocide is preceeded by words [dehumanization and demonizing language to depict the targets of the eventual genocide]. When the question of the impact of nasty language that is used by polarized right vs. left wingers was raised by Leonard-he simply laughed it off like that was a good thing because it was not violent.Leonard failed to bring him to the obvious point which was can it lead to violence[based on his preceeding comments about rhetoric preceeding violence].

Oct. 05 2011 02:15 PM

Did he talk about the Cambodian holocaust? If he's measuring by percent rather than total deaths then surely 25% of your population killed has to put it up with any of the worst in history and this occurred in the late 1970s.

Oct. 05 2011 01:58 PM

Aha, Pinker's hidden agenda comes out. Someone warned me in the last couple of days that he's an authoritarian.

Oct. 05 2011 01:56 PM

As someone who has spent a lot of time analyzing U.S. econ data for the post-WWII period, and I have respect for the work that's gone into putting it together and it is much more robust than anything Pinker is talking about (i.e.I'm not one of the kooks who thinks U.S. econ data are completely biased), I understand the strengths & weaknesses of data driven projects.

I think Pinker's work is completely nuts, given the huge uncertainties of the data.

Oct. 05 2011 01:55 PM
Ken from Upper West Side

Isn't one explanation for the reduction in violence in the modern era related to the increase in the participation of women in politics and society in general, at least in the West?

Oct. 05 2011 01:51 PM
Anthony from Jackson Heights

Please give a tip of the hat to Lincoln for Pinker's evocative title. His findings sound convincing to me.

Oct. 05 2011 01:50 PM
Carl Eklof from LES

What number does he use for the number of Jews killed by murder during the holocaust?

Oct. 05 2011 01:48 PM
Kaz from Fairfield, CT

How about Stalin's exponential massacre, tens of millions of death, during WW2, took place in Russia described in Bloodland? We should use against Russian population, not the world population.

Oct. 05 2011 01:47 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Nuclear bombs makes the probability of large major wars between the major powers highly improbable today. The cost of conflicts using WMDs on a wide scale would make any possiblity of gain from waging war highly improbable.

Oct. 05 2011 01:45 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio,
580,000 Jews died in the last Jewish revolt against Roma circa 135 AD.

IN fact, polygamy was so common in the Middle East probably because of the paucity of men, and the need to subsequently repopulate quickly after tribal wars and such. With polygamy, one man could impregnate a number of wives or concubines and bring the population back up within a generation.

Oct. 05 2011 01:42 PM

Since 1945? Heh. That's a mighty short period in human history.

"Rich countries don't go to war against each other..."

Just wait until the debt crisis results in depression in rich countries.

Also, rich countries just gratuitously invade powerless countries and smash them against the wall.

Oct. 05 2011 01:38 PM
Wayne Johnson from Brooklyn

What does all this happy talk have to do with the millions of people of color from the U.S. to Somalia are the victims of the violence of hunger and oppression by racist white power structures?

Oct. 05 2011 01:38 PM
Henry from Manhattan

A (two-part) question for Steven Pinker.

What prompted your inquiry into this question on historical violence?

Was there an “ah ha” moment that made you think, “I want to get the facts on this topic,” or was it a more general progression that fit with other themes that you've investigated?

Oct. 05 2011 01:37 PM

After the most deathly century ever recorded, all of it at the hands of nations. Surely Pinker jests.

Oct. 05 2011 01:34 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

According to the stories in the Bible, the reason why God sent the Flood to destroy the world the first time was due to massive violence. So the Bible writes, the world had to be destroyed, but Noah and his family were the only ones saved, and God had to give the first laws to mankind through Noah.

The earliest legal system we know about is the Hammurabi code. Of course there have been many legal codes ever since.

Oct. 05 2011 01:31 PM
Jim B

What period of time is being discussed?

Oct. 05 2011 01:31 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Crime indeed has declined mainly because of

1) Better surveillance, cameras, DNA analysis, spying and other techniques of detecting, identifying and then proving criminal activities;

2) Sublimation, via video games and other entertainments and diversions that channel natural youthful impulses into harmless activities.

As much as in the past horrific comic books, violent movies and now video games have been BLAMED for "juvenile delinquency" and other youthful excesses, in fact they have probably done more to sublimate them instead.

Oct. 05 2011 01:02 PM
Gerald Fnord from Palos Verdes, Ca

Are the modern hunter-gatherer-farmers, marginalised as they are and subject to a Malthusian trap (particularly on islands) _really_ good samples representatives of how life was for our ancestors when they were not hemmed-in by technologically superior civilisations and had a world at their disposal?

As is obvious, I think not: I believe that scarcity and intense technological disruption (see: steel tools in New Guinea, horses in North America) induce violence---tribesmen eternally warring over resources (whether they know this to be the case or not) are very different to what our first ancestors enjoyed, at least once they got into a virgin world. I think this distinction is important because it will probably be very soon that we will be able to have a post-scarcity world...if the owners of the current one permit it or can be got-around.

Oct. 05 2011 12:04 PM

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