Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Does violence make you nicer?

When nasty breeds nice

Who would you guess is more agreeable, warm, and trusting?  Is it someone living in a peaceful pastoral village in Switzerland, or someone living in a war torn country in the Middle East? Common sense might suggest that chronic exposure to violence and hostility would lead people to become more hostile themselves and, ultimately, less agreeable and trusting of others.  But a new series of studies by Andrew White and his colleagues at Arizona State University suggests that common sense might be wrong in this case. 

In one study, the researchers examined nation-level scores on major personality characteristics, in which people from 56 different nations, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, filled out the Big 5 Personality Inventory.  The data from the personality tests were compared with data on military spending in each country (taken from the CIA factbook).   The most interesting finding was this: Increases in military spending were positively and significantly linked to agreeableness. People living in countries that spent more of their budgets on war preparations, who might have been expected to be more disagreeable, were actually more agreeable. 

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In a second study, the researchers moved from the level of nations to the level of individuals; asking whether people who felt more threatened were more or less agreeable.  In this study, participants filled out the Belief in a Dangerous World scale, which includes questions like: “There are many dangerous people in our society who will attack someone out of pure meanness, for no reason at all.”  Again, you might have expected that those of us who are more paranoid about being beaten up by our neighbors would also be more disagreeable.  But no, the results showed just the opposite – people who were more concerned about personal safety were actually warmer and more agreeable than people who perceived their world as a nice safe place. 

What’s going on here?  One possibility is that people who feel threatened act friendlier as a way of pacifying other folks who might pose threats of violence. As Andrew White observed: “If this was the case, then threats of violence should lead people to become nice to everyone.”  But White noted there is another possible explanation: “Maybe people who feel threatened are simply becoming nicer to their own group, as a way of circling the wagons. If that’s the case, then it is possible that people who feel threatened might become less agreeable toward outsiders, because there would be little benefit in trying to affiliate with strangers who might be the source of threat.”

To test these two possibilities, the researchers returned to the CIA records on military spending, and linked that data with data from 50 nations whose residents had filled out the World Values Survey.  That survey contained questions tapping the extent to which people felt positive trusting feelings toward the members of their own groups (family and neighbors) and toward the members of other groups (people of different religions and nationalities).  The results, graphed in the figure, do not support the idea that threat leads us to become indiscriminately positive toward others.  People living in militarized countries were significantly more positive toward people in their own groups, but significantly more negative toward outsiders.  This same pattern was corroborated in two experimental studies.

As White concluded: “These findings add to a body of literature demonstrating that nation-level variations in personality traits are not just random.  Instead, those variations are often systematically linked to the social and physical environment.”  More specifically, the findings contribute to a deeper understanding the ways in which humans respond to threats of violence from others. Although violence can sometimes lead us to become disagreeable and mistrusting toward others, this is not always the case. Sometimes nasty breeds nice.

Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature

Related blogs:

The origins of xenophobia: Why can't we all just get along?

Racism and violence: Is the world becoming a nicer place to live?

Reference

White, A.E., Kenrick, D.T., Li, Y.J., Mortensen, C.R., Neuberg, S.L., & Cohen, A.B. (2012). When nasty breeds nice: Threats of violence amplify agreeableness at national, individual, and situational levels.  Journal of Personality & Social Psychology.  103, 622–634

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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