Steven Pinker’s excellent 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined , upsets many people. They believe that the world is more dangerous—now than ever before. And they believe it is dangerous to go around saying that the world isn’t more dangerous now. They are wrong, according to Pinker. And this is because of human psychology. There is, here, a fascinating story to tell about us and our fears.
Some readers might not want to tackle the hefty Better Angels , from cover to cover, as it is almost 800 pages long. Never fear: Pinker has in several places provided good synopses of his research and conclusions. One can search “Pinker, safer world,” or read this , this or this .
Let’s have our own synopsis (these four passages are quotes, taken from Pinker and Mack’s Dec. 22, 2014 Slate article).
Homicide. Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars. And in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking.
Violence Against Women. The intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses, have suggested to many pundits that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women. But the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization surveys (which circumvent the problem of underreporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past.
Violence Against Children. A similar story can be told about children. The incessant media reports of school shootings, abductions, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, date rape, and sexual and physical abuse make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise: Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past.
War. ... In a historically unprecedented development, the number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945, and the most destructive kind of war, in which great powers or developed states fight each other, has vanished altogether.
There’s more (and of course, much more in Pinker’s book), but this paints the picture we need: Our current world is the safest time in all of human history. In his Wall Street Journal article, Pinker sums up his conclusions: “Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.” Hallelujah!
Nevertheless, we Americans do fear (and not just Americans). Few will relax and rejoice upon learning of Pinker’s data-driven conclusions about the decline of violence. Many will find his conclusions unbelievable (partly because we are a nation that doesn’t like or trust science). In fact, we know that there is an entire political campaign for the U. S. presidency based on fear of increasing violence: the campaign of Mr. Trump.
Trump has repeatedly stressed the increasing violence here in the U. S., and the increasing war and destruction abroad. According to Vox , Trump said in his speech of July 21, 2016 that America is more dangerous "than I have ever seen and, frankly, than anybody in this room has ever seen." (Dara Lind, Vox , July 22, 2016). Enough people believe him, and enough people feel the truth that violence and danger are increasing, that Trump is not only the Republican nominee for the presidency, he is doing well in the polls.
(For fairness, I should add that many on the Democratic side are also pushing fear: the fear of Trump. This is an effort to get Clinton elected. But this is different, at least some. The “fear of Trump” movement is not primarily a “fear of violence” movement.)
Last month’s post was about the feeling of truth—we are connected to the truth by feeling it. We know the truth because we feel the truth . And the truth that we feel is that the world is more dangerous now than ever. We feel this because we are scared. Statistics like Pinker’s, while undoubtedly true, clash with statistics like this one from Excellent Beauty , Chapter 3, footnote 10.
In their significant and authoritative book Sacred and Secular (Inglehart, R., and P. Norris. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge University Press, 2004.), the political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris point out that the long-heralded demise of religion, predicted by the likes of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and other 19th- and early-20th century thinkers, has not happened. And it is probably not going to happen: religions are growing worldwide (that is, the number of people belonging to one religion or another is growing). What makes their findings disturbing is that Inglehart and Norris claim to have discovered that religions persist and grow in at-risk populations—populations in poor nations, nations under the rule of tyranny or the threat of terrorism, nations suffering large environmental degradation, and so on—where the members of the population face a decrease in existential security (Inglehart’s and Norris’s term). In populations where there is an increase in existential security (in nations that feel affluent and safe), religious membership decreases.
So, religions are growing because people feel unsafe, but Pinker is jumping up and down pointing to data that we are, in fact, more safe—safer now than ever. We should stop feeling unsafe and instead feel safe.
But we don’t. Why?
There is really one reason, which plays out in different ways: Our psychology . Specifically, we love fear.
In 2001, psychologists Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs wrote their important and seminal paper: "Bad is Stronger than Good" ( Review of General Psychology , 2001. Vol. 5. No. 4. 323-370.) Short form: you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.(Their paper discusses dozens of such examples.) The bad is stronger than the good because humans evolved: it is more adaptive to avoid the bad than to search out the good.
Because of our evolutionarily supplied love of fear and preference for the bad, our modern news is 24/7 reporting about bad and scary things. Violence is always newsworthy; peace is not. No one wants to hear 24/7 that someone was nice to someone. Sure, niceness can be tossed in at the end of a segment on the latest school shooting by an angry gunman, but the real news is the latest school shooting by an angry gunman. So, because humans evolved—which is why the bad is stronger than the good and why we are bad at statistics (see, e.g., Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow )—we tend to think that all the bad news is the whole truth. But it’s only a small part of truth.
I suspect that increased diversity and rights for others historically denied rights is also increasing many American's fears.
When is a fear rational?
Could it be rational to think that our world is more dangerous now than ever. Yes. How? By focusing on the future: We are heading into the most dangerous time in human history. Just consider global warming as one example. It is clear that global warming will change everything, from coastlines to what we eat. It will profoundly alter religious beliefs and governments and alliances and treaties. Perhaps it will change who can reproduce. Wars will be fought over food and water. Hundreds of millions could die. And global warming is just the beginning. A special issue of Science —July 15, 2016—discusses the probability of other extinction-level natural disasters. For example, Yellowstone National Park is actually a supervolcano, which appears to be on schedule to erupt. When it does, life east of it all the way to England will be exterminated. And the rest of the world will feel the effects, too. For those who’ve not read a really scary story in a while, I recommend this issue of Science .
But as Pinker would be the first to point out, Yellowstone is not the kind of violence he’s studying. No doubt, Pinker would agree that we should take steps to deal with global warming and Yellowstone and extraterrestrial impactors ... But this doesn’t change his point that human violence is on the decline. This is important because, after all, Trump is not riding a wave of fear of Yellowstone erupting.
So the world is today significantly less dangerous than it used to be. Most of us will die of old age, not in a hail of bullets. But try telling our psyches that. Our evolved psychology will carry the day, and we will live and fear and worry and stew and vote as if the hail of bullets is our most probable end.