In a world where headlines are dominated by stories of ethnic conflict, gang violence, and acts of terrorism, Harvard Psychology Professor Steven A. Pinker remains optimistic. His latest book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” argues that the last few decades have been the most peaceful in human history and examines this development from a psychological perspective.
While this idea may strike many as counter-intuitive, Pinker presents a wealth of statistical evidence demonstrating that the rate of violent deaths has fallen over the course of history.
“There’s a misleading impression if you don’t look at the denominator of the expression—the number of people who are not murdered,” Pinker said. “Only studies that track violence over time give you an accurate impression.”
Twentieth century homicide rates in Europe, for example, show a 10- to 50-fold decrease in homicide rates during the late Middle Ages. Within the last decade, the rate of documented deaths from war, terrorism, genocide, and other political violence has been a fraction of a percentage point.
Combining history with insights from the field of evolutionary psychology, Pinker uses trends in violence as a window into human nature.
Pinker has touched upon the psychology of violence in previous publications but said he was inspired to devote an entire book to the subject when he discovered a large body of research indicating a strong historical trend.
“Violence is a potentially useful way of looking at human nature because it’s present in all societies but in different extents and different roles,” said Dr. John Carter Wood, a historian whose research involves the intersection of criminology and psychology.
According to Wood, who helped provide historical data for Pinker’s book, psychology can inform the study of history in a way that culture and sociology cannot.
“History and the humanities have to take [Pinker’s psychological] argument about human nature seriously. It will help improve our ability to explain things,” Wood said.
In “Better Angels,” Pinker identifies four “better angels”—self-control, empathy, morality, and reason—which are constantly at odds with our five “inner demons”—sadism, revenge, dominance, violence in pursuit of practical benefit and violence in pursuit of an ideology.
Pinker argues that while the fundamentals of human nature have remained unchanged, institutional forces such as democracy, effective policing, a fair judicial system, and free commerce have gradually succeeded in suppressing our inner demons.
By pointing out these key features of civilization that people “might otherwise take for granted,” Pinker hopes to inspire confidence in our capacity to live peacefully.
“If you think war will always tear apart countries in Africa and South Asia, then you might become complacent and fatigued,” Pinker said. “But if you are aware of statistics which show that rates of warfare can go down in even the nastiest parts of the world ... then you’re emboldened to try to figure out where you can solve problems.”
—Staff writer Matthew T. Lowe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at email@example.com.