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.
A Quick Historical Glance at Physical Dominance in Cultural Evolution

A Historical Glance at Physical Dominance In Cultural Evolution

How do you defeat an empire? What is necessary for one culture to outcompete another? How does one group of people come to dominate another? I think it is fair to say that throughout history, the important factors for empires and cultures in their quest for domination and influence has changed. At different times through the course of human existence, different traits and characteristics have been more or less advantageous, and it is hard to predict exactly what traits and characteristics of empires and cultures are the most important for success at a given time.
It is likely that in the earliest possible days of Homo sapiens, physical strength and group cohesion were the most important factors for survival. At least, it can look that way as we look back in human history and try to understand where modern impulses for tribalism and paternalism originated in our species. If we all lived in groups of 12 to 25 individuals, the groups with the strongest males who could fight off other apes and other human bands for protection, and steal their resources while they were at it, likely had better chances of survival. If your group couldn’t survive a raid or a few rabid animals, then your chances of continuing on were slim. As a result more aggressive tribes organized around a single powerful figure probably had an advantage.
But the world that Homo sapiens inhabited changed, and the social structures and organizations of the species changed as well. The environment favored larger groups of human beings living and cooperating together. With more humans in a collective society, new traits became more important than pure physical dominance. As technologies changed, such as agriculture, fencing, and other innovates that made living in a set place safer and more secure, being the most aggressive and toughest human group was less advantageous for survival.
This process was slow and took place over a very long time. Physical dominance continued to play a crucial role, but slowly faded. By the time Christopher Columbus was ready to sail, merchants and bankers were beginning to be more important than physically impressive armies and rulers. Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the empires built by bankers and merchants in frock coats and top hats defeated the empires built by kings and noblemen in gold clothes and shining armor.” The incentives had changed. Using financial resources wisely, making investments that could pay off in greater returns, and developing economies became more important than conquest and war through physical dominance. Economic competition displaced physical competition.
Today we are in a world that is being characterized as feminine. Often, when this framing is applied to changes in the world it seems to have an implicit negative quality to it. But in truth, we are simply responding to continued changes in technology and civilization. Physical dominance is continuing to fall in its importance to how we live and cooperate together. Many bemoan this decline in the importance of physical dominance and character traits traditionally characterized as masculine. But the reality is that cooperation, services, working in cross-functional groups and teams, is becoming more important than in the past. This means there are different incentives which don’t always align well with traditional masculinity. I don’t think it is something to bemoan, and I don’t think we need to mourn the loss of the manly-man in human cultures. Empires were once displaced by businessmen in frock coats, and today we are seeing a similar process play out.

On Forms of Status – Dominance

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about our hardwired desires to increase our status. No matter who we are, where we are, or what we are doing, we are subconsciously aware of our status and we are pretty much always trying to increase our status one way or another. The authors describe two type of status, and how our attempts to increase our status change depending on the form of status we seek. They write,


“Status comes in two distinct varieties: dominance and prestige. Dominance is the kind of status we get from being able to intimidate others – think Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. Dominance is won by force, through aggression and punishment. In the presence of a dominant person, our behavior is governed by avoidance instincts: fear, submission, and appeasement.”


Tomorrow I will continue their quote and write about prestige, but for now, I’ll share a few thoughts that I have on dominance. Dominance as a strategy for obtaining strategy to me feels more primitive, and while it may be the kind of status we often seek in sports, courts, and boardrooms, it is not the kind of status that usually seems to be the most effective. In a politicized world where many weaker individuals can gang up on the stronger more dominant individual, this path can be a dangerous route to take. In other parts of the book Simler and Hanson seem to argue that our brains evolved to be more successful in seeking status in other ways.


People who seek greater status through dominance alienate a lot of people. They may be impressive in their abilities to bulldoze through their competition and they may achieve great success, but in the social and political species that we are, having friends and allies is important. Dominance does not encourage greater cooperation among talented individuals, but instead seems to force away those who are less dominant. It is not hard to see how this could lead to a small number of dominant sycophants sticking together to ward off attackers, and it is also easy to see how this strategy could backfire and fail to produce long-term status.


Ultimately, seeking status and seeking dominance seems to be a “careful what you wish for” type of approach. When your status is based in your dominance of other people, you can never be successful or attain a sense of success on your own. Our status is always tied to others by nature of being relative, but the dominance approach leaves you vulnerable to every slight. Achieving great status in this way is likely to leave you in a point where your status is high in only select groups, and despised in others.