The Importance of Knowing Trends in Violence

The Importance of Knowing Trends in Violence

Most people are generally not aware that the world is becoming a more peaceful place. Stories about things that are slowly reducing violent conflicts across the globe and saving lives are often fairly boring. Meanwhile, stories about death, destruction, and violence are shocking and interesting, drawing us in and sticking around in our memories for a long time. This misaligned perception of violence combined with our memory of shocking atrocities contributes to the general sense that people cannot be trusted and that the world is a dangerous place. It also makes us very cynical, and may cause us to dismiss people and places as shit-holes.
As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is important that we combat this cynicism. He writes, “the discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes.” A misperception on the levels of violence in LA, the terrorist group participation rate in Afghanistan, or the number of people dying in a war torn country far away from the United States builds cynicism. It can make people think that such places are bad and incapable of changing and advancing. It justifies expending fewer resources in helping and trying to reduce the violence, gang participation, and death. Better understanding that things in such places are getting better or are capable of getting better can combat this tendency.
Additionally, better understanding of actual trends in violence and death can help us be more effective when we do try to help. Pinker continues, “a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are.” Studying what actually reduces violence and saves lives will help us be effective. This is more important than receiving a warm glow from donating to groups that don’t demonstrate effectiveness. Rather than donating just for the sake of a warm glow, good information can help us make donations that we can be confident will make a big difference in the actual outcomes that people will experience. Combating cynicism and warm glow donating will be important to continue to improve the world, but we cannot do that if we only hear about violent headlines and not the slow, boring efforts to improve the planet.
A False Sense of Insecurity

A False Sense of Insecurity

The human mind is subject to a lot of cognitive errors and illusions. One cognitive error that we often fall into is a misperception of the frequency of events. If you have ever purchased a new car, you have likely experienced this. Prior to buying a new car, your eye probably wasn’t on the lookout for vehicles of the same make, model, year, and color. But suddenly, once you own a blue Ford Expedition, an orange Mini Cooper, or a silver Camaro, you will feel as though you are seeing more of those cars on the road. A cognitive illusion will make you feel as though suddenly everyone else has purchased the same car as you and that your particular year, make, model, and color of vehicle is growing in popularity (this has even happened to me with rental cars).
The reality is that other people didn’t all suddenly buy the same car as you. You are not that big of a trend setter. All that happened is that your focus while driving has shifted. You previously never paid attention to similar vehicles when you passed them on the road. You had no reason to think twice about a green Subaru, but now that you drive a green Subaru, every other green Subaru stands out. You remember seeing a car or it at least becomes salient to your mind, where previously you would not have actually thought about the other car. You would have seen it, but you wouldn’t have logged the occurrence in your mind.
Steven Pinker shows that this same phenomenon happens when we think about violence in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. News headlines easily mislead us and create a false sense of insecurity. We don’t actually have a real sense or a good understanding of the trends of violence and crime in a given area, but we do have a good sense of what kinds of stories have been on the news lately. As Pinker writes, “if we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programing policy if it bleed it leads will feed the cognitive shortcut the more memorable, the more frequent, and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.”
The cognitive shortcut that Pinker mentions is something Daniel Kahneman writes about in his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. When we are asked a difficult question, like how common are gold BMWs or how do crime trends today compare with crime trends of five years ago, we take a cognitive shortcut to come up with an answer. Instead of diving into statistics and historical records, which is hard work, we substitute an easier question and provide an answer to that question. The question we answer is, “can I think of memorable instances of this thing?”
When we ask ourselves that question, our perception and what we happen to have thought about or noticed recently matters a lot. If we never think about Dodge trucks, we won’t think they are very common on the roads. But if we happen to own a Dodge truck, then we are more likely to pay attention to other Dodge trucks on the road meaning that we will answer the substitute question about their frequency with an overestimation of their actual commonness on the roads. The same happens with news reports of violence. Instead of answer the question about trends in violence, we answer the question, “can I remember instances of violence in my city, state, country, or in the world?” If we watch a lot of news, then we are going to hear about every school shooting in the country. We are going to hear about all the robberies and assaults in our city, and we are going to hear about violent acts from across the globe. We are going to remember these events and consequently feel that the world is a dangerous and violent place, even if actual trends in violence and crime are decreasing. This cognitive error, based on a cognitive shortcut, creates a false sense of insecurity about the true nature of violence in our world.
Does Democratic Peace Theory Hold Up?

Does Democratic Peace Theory Hold Up

There is a theory in the world of international relations: democracies don’t go to war against each other. Democracies, the theory holds, are unwieldy to begin with and are thus hard to send to war. In a democracy, the people can vote you out of power if they don’t like your choices. No single person holds the levers of power that could plunge a nation into war. Negotiations and diplomacy go further than violence and bloodshed. These all sound like plausible reasons for why democracies don’t fight each other, but could the reason why we haven’t seen democracies declare war on each other be due more to random chance than to actual causal factors based on the nature of democracy?
Steven Pinker lays out some arguments for and against the democratic peace theory in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He describes the theory as being powerful because it helps explain our current Long Peace. There haven’t been any major wars between the leading powers of the world since WWII. For over half a century, we have lived in a time of relative peace and stability, something that is fairly unique in human history. Democratic peace theory is one way to explain why the Long Peace has persisted. However, Pinker explains that the theory has some problems if you look close enough:
“Critics of the Democratic Peace theory … point out that if one draws the circle of democracy small enough, not that many countries are left in it, so by the laws of probability it’s not surprising that we find few wars with a democracy on each side. Other than the great powers, two countries tend to fight only if they share a border, so most of the theoretical matchups are ruled out by geography.”
Democratic peace may just be a function of the fact that there haven’t been that many democracies in human history. To go one step further, most democracies have allied themselves with the United States, who was the sole great power for a period of time following the Cold War and was the great power confronting the Soviet Union following WWII. “A more cynical theory accounts for the Long Peace,” writes Pinker, “since the start of the Cold War, allies of the world’s dominant power, the United States, haven’t fought each other.”
Perhaps the structural factors I discussed in the opening paragraph really do make democracies less likely to go to war against each other. Perhaps there are causal relationships between democracies and the Long Peace, but the cynical take on the Long Peace also seem like a reasonable explanation for why democracies haven’t gone to war with each other. There could be less interesting relationships between countries that explain a lack of major war without getting into ideological and political differences along the lines of democracies versus dictatorships.
On Signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On Signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an important component of the Long Peace. Since the end of WWII, most armed conflicts have been relatively minor. There haven’t been any major wars between great national powers. The war in Ukraine is the largest armed conflict in Europe since the end of WWII and the most powerful countries in the world have not fought against each other since the end of WWII. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker demonstrates how enlightenment ideas represented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have changed the way that people think about war, ultimately contributing to the greater peace and stability we see today.
Pinker includes a short recap of the first three articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and these following opening sentences are worth noting:
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration…
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.”
These principals, Pinker argues, are more than just words on paper. They reflect humanist ideas and move rules and concepts of the nation or people to the back seat behind the individual. Pinker writes,
“In endorsing the Enlightenment ideal that the ultimate value in the political realm is the individual human being, the signatories were repudiating a doctrine that had reigned for more than a century, namely that the ultimate value was the nation, people, culture, Volk, class, or other collectivity.”
The value of life shifted from being part of a collectivity to being an individual. While this has its own consequences that we are still working through today, it shifted the political calculus of war. It is much harder to convince people to go fight in a war for their country when the individual and the life and experience of the individual, is the supreme value for everyone in a society. When people are little more than the subjects of an ultimate ruler, it is easier to send them  to war. When people are the embodiment of a collective, they are expected to go to war. When people are unique and free individuals, directing them to a war in which they may die is harder.
In Ukraine, we are seeing a lot of people chose to fight to defend their country. In Russia, we are seeing massive disinformation campaigns intended to delude the population. Russia has had to rely on misinformation to convince people to go to war, and reports are that many of them never knew they would be in battle (I don’t know how accurate that statement is). It does not seem as though thousands of soldiers can easily be marshalled for the conflict in Ukraine, demonstrating how much the Enlightenment ideals of the individual have changed the approach and calculus of war since the end of WWII, even in a country like Russia which has a host of problems in terms of being a real democracy.
This all makes the world a safer place in terms of violent conflict. Life is not a perfect utopia where no crime, violence, or murder ever takes place, but we haven’t fought major wars with death tolls in the millions in over 60 years. The Enlightenment values of the individual, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, helps us understand why.
Valuing Lives & Robotizing War

Valuing Lives and Robotizing War

“The number of available boos on the ground is still a major constraint on the projection of military force,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. We are still a long way off from fighting war entirely with robots. People are still the driving force of a military, as we are seeing in Ukraine right now. Drones are becoming more important and more effective, but having tanks, soldiers in the street, and paratroopers dropping onto strategic targets is hugely important.
But robots have been playing a more important role in wars lately. The United States and NATO countries are able to know a lot about what is taking place in Ukraine thanks to satellite imagery. Ukraine has been able to keep its power up by blocking Russian cyber attacks. Ukrainian drones have played an important role in halting Russian advances and preventing an easy collapse of the Ukrainian government. More and more, war is moving away from soldiers on the ground shooting at each other and toward robotic and cyber attacks.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature Pinker argues that the robotization of war is partially due to the fact that countries value the lives of both their citizens and foreign citizens to a much greater extent than they did in the past. We have developed technologies that allow us to fly planes from halfway across the world, ensuring that when a plane is shot down, a pilot is not shot down with it. The precision of our bombing has improved on those robotic planes, allowing the remote pilots to take out enemies with fewer casualties.
And when innocent civilians are killed, it is a much larger issue today than it was in the past. It is a war crime to bomb and entire country into submission. People are going to die in war, but when a country’s citizens learn about atrocities committed by their side in a war, it can be a much bigger issue for the politicians in charge than it would have been just a couple of hundred years ago. Robots help us fight wars without killing as many people, another indication that humans are becoming less violent and deadly over time.
The Hegelian Doctrine That History is an Inexorable Dialectic of Progress

The Hegelian Doctrine That History is an Inexorable Dialectic of Progress

In his book about how the world has become a more peaceful place for human beings over time, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker has to explain why two massively violent and deadly wars were fought in the 1900’s. If humans are becoming less violent and fighting each other less, then why did we see two incredibly large and deadly conflicts that engulfed the leading nations of the time so recently that the conflict could be recorded on video? Part of the explanation, Pinker explains, is a Hegelian doctrine that history was an inexorable dialectic of progress. This is not a view that Pinker supports, but rather a view that many leaders in the 1900s held, pushing them into conflict.
Pinker quotes historian Evan Laurds as summarizing the doctrine by writing, “all history represents the working out of some divine plan; war is the way that sovereign states, through which that plan manifested itself, must resolve their differences, leading to the emergence of superior states.”
This mindset is what put the world on a pathway to war in the 20th century. There were states that exercised their superior to others, justifying the brutal conquest of lesser states. In the mindset of megalomaniac leaders, the conquering and effective genocide of such inferior states was natural and unavoidable, effectively ordained by a deity. It was this kind of thinking that eventually gave way to Nazism. “Eventually the doctrine spawned the messianic, militant, romantic nationalist movements of fascism and Nazism,” Pinker writes.
In an age of ideas, where states existed to carry out the will of the people, and in an age where states could posit that they were manifestly superior to others, this meant that states were not only justified to conquer others, but that it was imperative they do so. Failing to dominate and destroy other inferior nations would have been viewed as a failure to keep history on its intended track and purpose.
And this didn’t just happen with the nation state. Pinker continues, “A similar construction of history as an unstoppable dialectic of violent liberation, but with classes substituted for nations, became the foundation of 20th-century communism.”
What is important to recognize, and what Pinker calls out in the final quote, is that these are constructions of history. They are particular interpretations constructed by human minds. They are narratives about the past that are used to dictate and shape the future. They are not objective readings of history, or even objective attempts at interpreting and understanding history. These constructions are self-serving, reductionist, and revisionist.
When we look around us, when we look at our past, and when we think about our future, it is important that we recognize such narratives and constructions. This Hegelian doctrine is nothing more than a narrative that we can discard if we find it unhelpful and lacking in how it describes the true nature of reality. There is no one narrative or construction to which we must adhere. We can evaluate and chose those which are beneficial for our purpose, and which hopefully are more objective and less likely to push us down pathways to war and violence.
Great Powers Wars

Great Powers Wars

“Countries that slip in or out of the great power league fight far more wars when they are in than when they are out,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
When we try to study the history of armed conflict we have to look at more modern examples of war and project backwards. We don’t have to go too far into the human past to start running into problems with records. Writing systems have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean that everything that was written down was preserved and saved to today. It also doesn’t mean that since the time that humans developed writing systems humans have been recording wars and violent conflicts. Warring political factions and state based (however loosely you define a state) coalitions have likely been engaged in violent conflicts as far back as humans have organized themselves into political units, but can we tell if violent conflicts have gotten more or less common over history?
Pinker argues that conflicts have gotten less common throughout human history, especially in more recent history. Studying great powers helps us see that. Historically, humans are better record keepers when part of a major political unit. Great powers are better at documenting what they do, so their wars and conflicts are more likely to have been recorded and more of those records are likely to have survived to today. The evidence, as shown by Pinker’s quote, is that great powers fight more than minor powers. This means that studying the great powers gives us a good sense of the frequency of violent conflicts between political entities throughout history.
When we study great powers we see that violence has declined over time. The two wars of the 1900s were outliers. They were immense great power conflicts, and while great powers fight more than lesser powers, they generally have fought less and less over time. While it often doesn’t feel like it, war is becoming less common in human history. We are better at recording and documenting war, and evidence shows that we turn to war with less frequency than we did in the past.
Knowledge Paradigms

Knowledge Paradigms

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explores the role that science, reason, and rationality played in mankind’s journey to become less violent. Throughout the long run of human history we have become less violent, less impulsive, more rational, and more considerate of others. Most humans alive do not live in small warring tribal bands. Most humans do not commit violent acts in the name of a deity. Most humans do not kill their neighbors for their own personal gain. Becoming smarter, Pinker argues, helped us become more peaceful in all of these areas. Becoming less impulsive and more thoughtful of how we relate to others has been a slow human process, but has played out in many important ways that contribute to the reduction in violence. We gained more knowledge about the world and pacified ourselves.
Pinker explores what enabled us to become smarter and what shifts in knowledge institutions played an important role in humans changing the ways we think. Science is one of the big factors that Pinker explores and he suggests that becoming more scientific, believing in objective inquiry rather than divine revelation, put people on a path toward peace. About science and knowledge he writes,
“Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge – not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.”
The values within science represent an important shift in an approach to human knowledge. Knowledge from a deity is absolute and cannot be challenged. Recognizing that our knowledge is instead limited, subject to revision and updating in the face of new information, and based on objective reality and not the word of authority or divine spirits is a departure from much of human history. It is uncomfortable to live with uncertainty and questions we have no way to answer, but it also makes us more peaceful. It makes us more considerate of the world, less sure of our selves, and less willing to follow leaders who encourage violence for dubious reasons.
Pinker continues, “though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it.” Moving forward in human history, this is an important lesson we need to continue to think about. We don’t have all the answers about the physical world and we have even fewer answers about the human social world. We need to acknowledge that there is information we can be confident about even if we cannot prove every aspect of a scientific theory or belief. We need to recognize that we are fallible and cannot have complete confidence in our own beliefs and worldviews. We have to be willing to learn and update our beliefs. Doing so is the only way we can continue to exist and cooperate as a peaceful species.
Reading as a Technology for Perspective Taking

Reading as a Technology for Perspective Taking

Can reading make us less violent? Steven Pinker thinks that it can. Specifically, Pinker thinks that reading can expand our circle of empathy, getting us to think about more than just our own thoughts. Reading has a power to open new perspectives and invites us into the mind of another person for a long amount of time. We see what they think, we consider their thoughts and emotions, we imagine what we would do if we were in their situation and weigh our response against the response of the author or the characters they employ.
Pinker writes, “reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point.” Reading, whether we notice it or not, shifts our perspective and takes us out of our own narrow thoughts and self-interest. It gets us to consider that other people have different thoughts, but that they still think and feel the way that we do. This allows us to start building greater empathy. Pinker continues, empathy in the sense of adopting someone’s viewpoint is not the same as empathy in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route.”
I don’t know how much I agree that increasing literacy expanded people’s empathy and reduced violence, but I think it is an interesting argument. I think reading does have the ability to shift ones perspective and get people to consider more than their own self-interest. I’m sure there is a correlation between literacy and violence, but I’m sure it is a messy correlation with many conflicting variables. I would expect that there are other variables and factors that both make people less violent and make people more inclined to learn to read and read frequently.
Regardless of my doubts, I think greater literacy is a valuable thing. I think that encouraging people to see the world beyond their own lens and to take the perspectives of others is a good thing. The causal mechanism for how those two factors reduce people’s levels of violence toward others makes sense, even if I am still hesitant to say that is what explains the correlation. If there is a chance that increased literacy makes us less violent, then we should pursue that chance and study the impacts of our efforts to expand literacy so that we can better understand Pinker’s argument and hopefully have a less violent world.
Norms Precede Governance

Norms Precede Governance

“A gradual shift in sensibilities is often incapable of changing actual practices until the change is implemented by the stroke of a pen,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. What Pinker explains is that governance, at least in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, relies on feedback from the people. Support for a given policy or position must build before a policy or position will be enacted into law or change existing law.
Pinker’s view is similar to a punctuated equilibrium theory of public policy (or of any change). Slowly, our attitudes, views, and opinions change and we then see sudden shifts in the law. For a few decades in the United States, views toward marijuana slowly shifted until sufficient support enabled a rapid change in laws around marijuana. Over a few decades people’s fear of gay people and gay marriage changed until the point where many states suddenly began to approve gay marriage. Opinions slowly shift and build until sudden large shifts in policy occur to align laws with our new views.
Pinker argues that this theory can also be seen on a global scale in the way that humans relate to and think about violence. Moral agitators and debates changed people’s sensibilities around slavery, public hangings, and head first football tackles. The first two were outlawed as public sensibilities changed and now are unthinkable in the United States. What once was common place is now seen as barbaric. Head fist football tackles are moving in the same direction. No one alive today remembers the effects and the violence of American chattel slavery first hand, nor does anyone remember witnessing public hangings first hand (this a broad generalization – someone may still be living who attended a public lynching). As a result, we couldn’t even imagine living in a world with chattel slavery or public hangings. The argument is that head first football tackles will also eventually be unimaginable once no one playing the game remembers a time when they were the norm.
Pinker’s argument is a good way to look at our changing views, opinions, and laws surrounding violence. His thoughts on people forgetting about violent practices and having those practices become unimaginable is also a helpful way to look at historical shifts in our relationships and understandings of violence. But they are not the only public policy theories that can be applied to the use and opinions of violence in our country. This view doesn’t factor in windows of opportunity for changing our relationships and views toward violence. His views don’t address the multiple streams of public opinion that include policies, problems, and politics. For each specific violent issue that could make its way to the agenda, there is a host of reasons why society may focus on that one area, why our sensibilities may change, and why policy may change to reflect those sensibilities. Pinker does seem to be correct in saying that all of these factors are moving us in a less violent direction, with periods of equilibrium punctuated by changes followed by periods where we forget that violent practices used to be common place.