Having Many Groups Can Reduce Violence

Having Many Groups Can Reduce Violence

One of the metaphors I think about frequently is the idea of pulling the goalie. This idea comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts Revisionist History where he argues that hockey coaches should be more willing to pull their goalie and compete with more offensive players on the ice when they are losing. It is a bit taboo to pull your goalie with more than a couple of minutes left in a game, but the math suggests it is a better strategy. As it turns out, pulling the goalie, or at least the metaphorical extension of pulling the goalie, may be a good rule of thumb to help reduce violence within human social groups as well.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “if people belong to many groups and can switch in and out of them, they are more likely to find one in which they are esteemed, and an insult or slight is less consequential.” What this means is that having many groups can reduce violence. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all competing for social status, and within small groups social status is often zero sum. There are only so many people within a group who can be leaders that set the tone and make decisions for the entire group. If one person gains leadership authority, then another must cede or lose that authority. Violence can be an avenue through which authority is gained or defended. However, if society can offer many group opportunities, and if people can switch groups, then violence can be avoided.
If you are part of a group and things are not going well, you don’t have to stick it out as the butt of everyone’s jokes or as the recipient of violence from those who wish to display their dominance over others. You can chose to pull the goalie and change tactics by moving to a new group where you may find more status. You don’t have to stick within the same group and try to assert yourself, defend yourself against a slight, or gain dominance through force. You can simply leave and find a new group where you can fit in and be esteemed without needing to employ violence to defend yourself or advance.
Hopefully most of us don’t have to use violence in any of our groups to build or maintain status. Throughout history many groups have organized around violence. Street gangs use violence to keep order, playground cliques often employ violence, and sports clubs can easily fall into violence. Creating more freedom of movement among small groups, especially for young men, can eliminate the need to employ violence while still participating in a group. Expanding the types of social groups, both online and in real life, can give us more avenues for people to feel connected and engaged in social endeavors without having to fit into a particular culture that requires violence to gain or maintain status.
Why We Think We Are Lucky

Why We Think We Are Lucky

According to Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, people tend to overrate the positive aspects of themselves and their lives. For any given trait, people generally tend to believe they are above average. Whether it is driving, their work ethic, or their cooking skills people have overly positive views. Interestingly, this even goes beyond aspects that are controllable or really even influenced by the individual. Pinker writes, “people also hold the nonsensical belief that they are inherently lucky. Most people think they are more likely than the average person to attain a good first job, to have gifted children, and live to a ripe old age.”
It is one thing to be confident, but Pinker argues that we are outright deluded about ourselves when we compare ourselves to everyone else. This is puzzling because outright delusion doesn’t seem like it should make sense evolutionarily. Pinker writes, “it only begs the question of why our brains should be designed so that only unrealistic assessments make us happy and confident, as opposed to calibrating our contentment against reality.” Being overly confident seems like a strange strategy for our brains since it could lead us astray in a dangerous way. If we are too confident in our driving skills we may take a corner too quickly and end up in a dangerous crash. If our ancestors were too confident in themselves, they may have risked getting too close to an alligator and also ended up in a dangerous crash. Overconfidence has a limit where it should be hard to pass along genetically.
Pinker’s conclusion is that we are social creatures and that we can bluff our way into obtaining more resources, more status, and more allies than we may obtain if we followed a strategy of pure honesty. “It would be better for the species if no one exaggerated,” writes Pinker, “but our brains were not selected for the benefit of the species, and no individual can afford to be the only honest one in a community of self-enhancers.”
Lying, or at least bluffing and exaggerating the truth, helps us in social situations. We strive to present ourselves as stronger, more successful, and more faithful than we truly are so that we win more allies who will help us if we ever need it. These strategies help improve our social status, which may help us find a good partner with whom we can pass our genes along. We delude ourselves so that we can better delude others in this game of social self aggrandizement. We think we are better drivers, smarter, and even luckier than the average person, because the more genuine we can appear in our belief of our positive greatness, the better we can bluff others as well.
Five Causes of Violence

Five Causes of Violence

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker lays out five root causes of violence. Four of which I believe we can directly address through better institutions. The remaining form we have dealt with using institutions, but not in a very effective way. Ultimately, my takeaway is that institutions are crucial for reducing violence by addressing root causes, but that poorly designed and poorly functioning institutions can play into these same root causes of violence.
To introduce the causes of violence Pinker writes, “the first category of violence may be called practical, instrumental, exploitative, or predatory. It is the simplest kind of violence: the use of force as a means to an end. The violence is deployed in pursuit of a goal.” Violence can be a tool to force people to do something or to obtain something we want. We can use violence to force people to act in a certain way, to prevent people from taking something we have, and to try to achieve a specific outcome. Violence in this way is unfair and unequal. It favors the physically dominant and the socially connected who can employ others to do harm for them or prevent them from facing consequences. Institutions to address this kind of violence include the rule of law, state monopolies on violence, and the extension of law enforcement to all citizens, even the most powerful people in a society. When institutions exist that prevent violence from being employed as a means to an end, then the temptation to use violence to get what we want diminishes.
“The second root cause of violence is dominance – the drive for supremacy over one’s rivals.” This form of violence is connected to the first, because through dominance we are achieving a certain outcome that we want. Again, when violence is employed the outcome is unfair and unequal. Worse, it is not limited to individuals, “groups compete for dominance too.” We use violence in this way to maintain a status quo or ensure that the status quo will favor people like us over others who could take something from us. Institutions are harder to develop to address the dominance use of violence, but meaningful elections and representation has helped. Modern institutions may downplay the role of violence, but modern political systems have not downplayed the importance of dominance.
“The third root of violence is revenge – the drive to pay back a harm in kind.” What comes to mind when I think of this form of violence is the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. I will admit I am not 100% sure of the details of what happened, but what appears to have happened is that Arbery was going for a jog in a neighborhood that had recently experienced some theft. Arbery was poking around a constructions site, a place he probably shouldn’t have been, when two white men saw him and chased him. The chase ended with Arbery being shot and killed. The killing was in a sense a revenge killing. The white men used violence to correct what they perceived as a wrong – perceiving Arbery as being a criminal who had stolen from a construction site. In the end, the revenge killing of Arbery was ruled a murder, our justice system’s institutions holding that such a use of violence was not acceptable. The rule of law is a powerful institution in deterring the revenge root cause of violence.
“The fourth root is sadism, the joy of hurting.” This root cause of violence is part of why America has more people in prison than any other nation. We respond to violence as if people are evil and need to be locked away from society. We act as if the other causes don’t exist, and as if people do bad things because they are all sadists. The only problem is that we cannot predict who is a sadist and who isn’t. Just as we can’t predict who is going to be a great employee, who is going to be the best NBA draft prospect, and who is going to steal everyone’s retirement savings in a Ponzi Scheme, we cannot predict who is going to employ violence for sadistic motives. I am not sure we are at a point where we can effectively control this motivation with institutions. Our fear of this motive has lead to our costly incarceration problem, which may not be effective.
“The fifth and most consequential cause of violence is ideology, in which true believers weave a collection of motives into a creed and recruit other people to carry out its destructive goals.” In the United States we are terrified of Arabic terrorists, however, the most dangerous ideology, in terms of people killed in the United States each year, is white nationalism. We see the danger of this form of violence repeatedly – from grocery store shootings to school shootings, the danger has been clear. But we have failed to fully address the beliefs and ideologies which drive people to commit white nationalist violence. Throughout human history, ideology has been protected and institutions have enabled and supported ideological violence. The Crusades, Jim Crow laws and the KKK, and modern failure to use institutions to control firearms are examples of ideological violence being protected or at the very least not being deterred through institutions.
My argument is that these causes of violence, with the exception of sadistic violence, can be controlled and shaped by institutions. We can develop institutions which reduce violence, but sometimes we fail to do so. It is our responsibility to think about our institutions, how they function, and to take steps to improve them to continue to reduce human violence.
Calculating Justifiable Violence

Calculating Justifiable Violence

Not all violence is created equal. This is easy for us to see and understand even if we have not thought about it deeply. The idea that some violence is justifiable, excusable, and even a necessity is played out in sports, movies, and books all the time.
Hunting is a clear act of violence, but it can be a necessity for some people and even a public good (as is the case with hunting wild hogs in parts of Texas today). Violence in the form of sports is often celebrated and replayed on nationally broadcast television shows. Violence in self-defense is excusable (and sometimes explicitly protected under the law), and sometimes small displays of violence can prevent larger violence in the future.
According to Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, our brains have evolved specific skills around calculating whether violence is permissible or not. He writes,
“The temporoparietal junction and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which grew tremendously over the course of evolution, gives us the wherewithal to perform cool calculations that deem certain kinds of violence justifiable. Our ambivalence about the outputs of those calculations … shows that quintessentially cerebral parts of the cerebrum are neither inner demons nor better angles. They are cognitive tools that can both foster violence and inhibit it.”
Our mental ability to excuse violence that takes place in sports, violence that shows that we will defend ourselves and prevents larger future violence, and violence that kills wild pigs for the good of society can be both a good and a negative part of our thinking processes. We can dismiss violence in the case of a single mother using a weapon to defend herself against an intruding violent criminal in her house. However, we have also seen humans justify state sanctioned capital punishment, deliberately killing criminals in a form of retributive justice that may not be as fair as humans have long thought. As Pinker’s quote notes, the same brain processes can be better angels and inner demons when it comes to the ways violence plays out and is accepted or dismissed within our society. This is important to think about because it means at an individual level violence and our perception of it will fluctuate and vary. To reduce and control violence, we need larger institutions which function to reduce violence across the board, without as much individual variation and dismissal of some forms of violence.
Aggression, Brain Circuits, & Civilizing Processes

Aggression, Brain Circuits, & Civilizing Processes

Throughout The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about the process of humans becoming less violent by describing humans as engaging in civilizing processes. Over time humans have developed social norms, institutions, and processes that have made us more civilized and less violent. We organize our social worlds in ways that reward patience, consideration of others, and restraint from violent and aggressive outbursts. Our civilizing processes have pushed back against many instinctive responses that are common across mammals.
“Biologists have long noted that the mammalian brain has distinct circuits that underlie very different kinds of aggression,” writes Pinker. In many situations mammals (which we are as humans of course) will act out aggressively. There are multiple brain systems and pathways that will drive aggression – fear, self defense, preservation of resources. Pinker stresses that there is not just one violent, aggressive, or animalistic circuit or pathway in our brains, there are multiple which can be activated by different factors.
Pinker continues, “one of the oldest discoveries in the biology of violence is the link between pain or frustration and aggression. When an animal is shocked, or access to food is taken away, it will attack the nearest fellow animal, or bite an inanimate object if no living target is available.” Brain circuits related to aggression are fast and non-discriminating. They will activate and direct aggression to anything that is close by – as many of us who have kicked a printer or thrown a TV remote know first hand.
So how have humans been able to become more peaceful over time when we have a variety of fast acting brain circuits which will trigger violent outbursts in response to a host of different factors? Pinker writes, “the neuroanatomy suggests that in Homo sapiens primitive impulses of rage, fear, and craving must contend with the cerebral restraints of prudence, moralization, and self-control.” In other words, humans have pursued civilizing processes that make aggression more costly, create institutions which reduce some factors that prime violence, and reward humans for practicing self-control rather than impulsive behaviors. As Pinker describes civilizing processes throughout the book, some processes are individual, requiring the individual to behave in more peaceful and sanitary ways. Some processes are institutional, creating rewards for civil behavior and punishments for less civil behavior. We actively shape a world that addresses the multiple pathways for aggression in the brain and works against those pathways so that they activate less frequently and are punished when they do activate. This is the heart of the civilizing processes which have driven down violence in human society throughout human history.
The Ordinariness of Evil

The Ordinariness of Evil

I think we generally underrate certain brain systems and processes that lead us to make sub-optimal decisions. There are a lot of things that we do which are perfectly logical and reasonable, but have very negative consequences. Examples include the use of single-use plastics, failing to help those who are in the greatest need, or driving polluting vehicles. We all know these things are not great, but various institutions and structures make it hard to change our behaviors, and our brain systems reinforce the decision-making processes that allow us to dismiss the harm we do or rationalize our decision not to make a change. We generally understand and accept this, but what we fail to realize is that this ordinary negativity isn’t that much different from great evil. The ordinariness of evil is something we don’t acknowledge, so consequently we fail to see how ordinary negativity is in line with the ordinariness of evil.
“Certain brain systems can cause both the best and worst in human behavior,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Humans are naturally tribal and we are generally altruistic toward members of our own tribe. People who we think of as being on our team, as similar to us, and as our allies are likely to be the recipients of our benevolence and generosity. But our tribal nature can also make us xenophobic, racist, and oppressive to those who are different or who compete against us. We can be actively cruel to people who are different from us (even while pretending we are not – as in providing economic arguments for racist policies like redlining in real estate) or absentmindedly cruel (as in supporting NIMBY-ism in much of the United States today). What is important to recognize is that common thinking systems, bounded rationality, and either active or passive self-interest can perpetuate evil.
“Evil … is perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances, including provocations by the victim, in ways they feel are reasonable and just,” writes Pinker.
Most of the people who commit evil in this world are not like the movie villains we think about when we picture true evil. Most people are more or less average and have the capacity to be nice, generous, and kind as well as evil. This goes for those who actively commit atrocious evil and those who passively perpetuate evil. Quite often we are reacting to the world around us in understandable ways. This doesn’t mean we are always reacting in justifiable, healthy, or good ways, but we are reacting in human ways. There are some people who are pure evil, but most people who commit great atrocities are doing so in response to a range of factors. If we want to address the evil in the world today, we have to recognize the ordinariness of evil and change our approach. We have to continue to improve and adapt the institutions and structures which incentivize evil or passively allow evil to take place. We have to recognize that those who commit evil are not pure monsters, but were influenced by sometimes ordinary and banal factors. We have to accept that the way our brains work can make us great, but can also make us terrible.
Emotions & Social Life

Emotions & Social Life

I recently had a situation, I won’t get into the specifics, where I was pretty jealous of a very close friend. The jealousy made me feel as though a particular aspect of my life wasn’t good enough, even though I am in a pretty good position and really shouldn’t be complaining about that particular aspect of my life. I recognized this jealousy in myself, acknowledged it was there, and then tried to understand that this jealousy is a result of being a social creature with evolved tendencies and instincts, and that this jealousy is an emotion that could have helped serve me well if I still lived in the context of my human ancestors where this trait originally evolved.
My experience is something that we cannot escape as humans. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “emotions are internal regulators that ensure that people reap the benefits of social life – reciprocal exchange and cooperative action – without suffering the costs, namely exploitation by cheaters and social parasites.” All of our emotions are complex, interdependent, and  tied to the complex social webs and societies that we are a part of. Any given emotion, like the jealousy I felt, is tied to much more than a single thing, such as a singular desire. Caught up in any given emotion are aspects of fairness, deservedness, value and self-worth, contribution, rewards, incentives, social status, and more. This is all part of living social lives as social creatures.
Within this complex dynamic we do all kinds of weird things. We respond to competing incentives, disincentives, rewards, and punishments in ways that we don’t always acknowledge or understand. We downplay our own cheating, unfair rewards, and head starts. We overplay our level of virtue and hard work. Pinker continues, “a person’s own level of virtue is a tradeoff between the esteem that comes from cultivating a reputation as a cooperator and the ill-gotten gains of stealthy cheating.”
Our emotions are tied up in all of this. Feeling good about ourselves, feeling depressed, feeling jealousy, and anything else we might feel is all related to our position in society, whether we feel we are getting a fair deal or not, and how we think others perceive us. In this context, a helpful way to deal with our emotions is to remember that they are evolved in order to help us try to navigate this complex system. Recognizing an emotion, trying to understand why we might be feeling that emotion in an objective way, and not beating ourselves up (or overly praising ourselves) for having a given emotion is the best way to handle ourselves and our situations. We are complex social creatures, and even a simple emotion can have far more complex strings attached to it than we can always realize and understand.
Tactical Advantages of Nonviolence

Tactical Advantages of Nonviolence

The Black Lives Matter movement has been set back in recent years by the use of violence. In 2020, Black Lives Matter protests and protests against police brutality directed toward minorities (black people in particular) erupted across the United States with violence being caught on camera. Protesters and police alike hurt their own stated messages and positions through the use of violence during protests.
Nonviolent protests sound like a good approach simply because they fall within positive moral frameworks. But the reality of nonviolent movements is that they provide a tactical advantage. Steven Pinker writes about this tactical advantage, and its deliberate use, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He writes, “a taboo on violence, [Martin Luther] King inferred, prevents a movement from being corrupted by thugs and firebrands who are drawn to adventure and mayhem. … By removing any pretext for legitimate retaliation by the enemy, it stays on the positive side of the moral ledger in the eyes of third parties, while luring the enemy onto the negative side.”
This is where both police brutality protesters and the police themselves failed in the summer of 2020. The police were being criticized for being unreasonably violent in their tactics and approach toward policing black people. Displays of force caught on camera during protests reinforced this image. Using violence against protesters put the police on the negative side and put protestors on the positive side.
However, looting during the protests, along with vandalism and the destruction of both public and private property, made the protesters themselves look bad. Protestors also employed violence against the police at some points, defeating the message they were trying to present. Outside of BLM protests in 2020, the violent storming of the capital on January 6th by angry Trump supporters demonstrates how the use of violence can shock the public and destroy credibility.
Being nonviolent is not just a good moral position to take. It is a tactical advantage in protests and grass roots movements. Violence is harmful and counter productive to the purpose of a protest or movement, while nonviolence is a strategic aid.
Reduced Violence and the Spread of People & Ideas

Reduced Violence and the Spread of People & Ideas

In the United States, urban and metropolitan areas of the country seem very polarized against rural areas of the country. This is an important aspect of American political and social polarization that plays out in how we vote and how we think. Denser areas and higher population areas tend to vote for Democrats while rural areas tend to vote for Republicans. Urban and metro areas are more favorable to immigration and gay marriage than rural areas. Living in larger and denser cities seems to shape the way people think about social issues and how they ultimately vote.
This is not necessarily a surprising issue and reflects self selection effects and general life experience effects on the way we think about people and the world. The more you are exposed to diverse and different people, the more likely you are to be accepting of them, at least if your encounters with them are generally positive.
Steven Pinker writes about this phenomenon in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, specifically addressing how the spread of ideas and the spread of people has created a less violent world. As we have been better able to mix and interact, we have become a more tolerate species. Pinker writes,
“Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition. A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs, such as that members of other races and ethnicities are innately avaricious or perfidious; that economic and military misfortunes are caused by the treachery of ethnic minorities; that women don’t mind being raped; that children must be beaten to be socialized; that people choose to be homosexual as part of a morally degenerate lifestyle; that animals are incapable of feeling pain.”
While it is tempting to match all the examples from Pinker in the above paragraph to current American Political parties and dynamics, I think (and I believe Pinker would agree) it is more powerful to map this back to different cultures, different eras, and different human outlooks and beliefs throughout the history of mankind. We evolved within small tribal groups and slowly developed cities. However, our cities were never as interconnected as they are today. It was possible to think of people who didn’t speak your language or live up to your customs as savages. This seems to be a typical way of thinking for humans, especially when there isn’t anyone or anything available to prove you wrong. It is easy to imagine that the Greeks effectively dehumanized the Trojans to justify destroying Troy. While this has still happened in modern times (the Nazi’s dehumanization of Jews as an example) it is harder to justify today. Our institutions and reformations recognize that there is very little meaningful difference between human races at aggregate levels, that human sexuality is far more complex than male/female, and ideas around compassion for the planet and animals have grown. Creating an interconnected planet has made us a more peaceful species over time by helping us learn more about different humans in different places with different customs but similar emotional and mental capacities to ourselves. The spread of ideas has made us more tolerant and has reduced violence.
Non-Violence Requires Mental Fortitude

Non-Violence Requires Mental Fortitude

Being non-violent is not naturally easy for human beings. Non-violence requires a measure of self-discipline, self-control, and mental fortitude. It requires that we see beyond ourselves, shifting our perspective outside our own self-interest and point of view.
Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker writes, “insofar as violence is immoral, the Rights Revolutions show that a moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct, culture, religion, and standard practice. In their place is an ethics that is inspire by empathy and reason and stated in the language of rights.”
When we are not measured, when we do not exercise self-control, and when we lack mental fortitude, we can become violent. Just as we can become addicted to substances, indulgent in too many desserts, and unwilling to go to the gym, we can lash out physically against others when we do not think through our actions with reason and discipline. We are social creatures, so having mental fortitude and thinking about our actions within the context of the society we are a part of is natural for us, but that doesn’t mean it is always the easy, default way of being.
Violence has been a long standing element of our social arrangements and behaviors behaviors. Whether through instinct, which said that we must kill a neighbor to protect what is ours, through cultural practices which failed to put taboos on violence between spouses, religions which encouraged eternal rewards for violent deaths defending religious principals, or eye-for-an-eye criminal justice policies, violence has been an accepted part of many of our institutions. But a language of rights and empathy toward other people have reduced the role and acceptance of violence in our institutions. Rational thought, combined with mental fortitude is making our species a less violent species over time. Non-violence is not easy, but it is something we can rationally program into our institutions in continually better ways.