More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Is This the Way to Change Our Attitudes About Violence?

New research discovers a fascinating way to limit people's violent tendencies.

Humans go to great lengths to camouflage our animal nature because to recognize that we are physical beings destined to the same mortal fate as other forms of biological life is existentially threatening to us—we want to be more than the sum of our biological parts.

Researchers have considered a number of ways that these efforts to distance ourselves from other animals impact our social lives (learn more here and here). A lot of this work suggests that human discomfort with animality leads to personally and socially problematic attitudes and behaviors. However, some recent research suggests that existential concerns about animality can be used to promote positive social outcomes.

Specifically, psychologists wanted to see if they could take advantage of our existential concerns about animality to reduce aggressive behavior and support for violent resolutions to international conflicts. In one study, some participants were presented with information highlighting the ways that humans are very similar to other animals. Other participants were presented with information highlighting the ways that humans are distinct from other animals. Participants in a third condition were presented no information regarding this topic. In a second part of the study, participants were asked to put on boxing gloves and punch a punching bag. They were told that this activity was part of a study evaluating the therapeutic benefits of venting emotions, and researchers secretly recorded the punching-bag activity with a video camera.

As the researchers predicted, highlighting the similarities humans share with other animals decreased aggressive behavior. Participants who received information about human/animal similarities threw fewer punches, and used less force when punching the bag than participants who received information about human/animal differences or participants who received no information. In addition, participants who received information about human/animal similarities appeared to be less comfortable engaging in the punching bag activity.

People don't want to feel like they are acting like animals.

In another study, researchers had participants read one of three passages. One described human violence as very similar to animal violence; a second described human violence as very different from animal violence; and the third did not discuss this topic. After completing some other materials, participants answered a questionnaire assessing their support for using aggressive military action to resolve international conflicts involving Iran that could threaten U.S. security.

The findings again suggested that existential concerns about human animality can influence social attitudes. Participants who read the passage suggesting that human and animal violence are similar were significantly less in favor of aggressive military action against Iran than participants who read the passage suggesting that human and animal violence are different or participants who did not read any passage related to human violence.

In all, these studies further highlight how existential concerns can influence human behavior. People strive to perceive themselves as civilized, above the primitive nature of other animals. To the extent that violence and war potentially highlight our underlying animal nature, we may find such behavior distasteful. Thus, perhaps one way to promote nonviolence and peaceful resolutions to social conflicts is to associate physical violence with animality. Similarly, perhaps we inadvertently increase people’s comfort with violence when we try to hide its brutal and bloody nature, or by glamorizing and stylizing it, as often happens in cinema.



Motyl, M., Hart, J., Goldenberg, J., Heflick, N., Pyszczynski, T., & Cooper, D. (2012). Creatureliness priming undermines aggression and support for war. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 648-666.

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.


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