Aggression Works Because People Feed It

A pig feeding taught me about the roots of aggression

Posted Jan 30, 2014

I toured a farm recently and got to feed the pigs. I saw them bite each other over the crumbs of tortillas we were given to toss at them. The pigs were not actually hungry because the farmer already fed them. The conflict reminded me of Henry Kissinger’s statement that the conflict in academia is so bitter because the stakes are so low.

But after watching for a while, I realized that more was at stake than food. The pigs seemed to bite when another pig got in their way, like someone cutting you off in traffic. Biting works in the pig world. The pain of a bite is a big surge of cortisol. That paves neural pathways that make you think twice before you cross paths with the biter again. It’s easy to see this in our daily lives. We steer clear of people who "bite," effectively deferring to them unintentionally. We reward aggression inadvertently to avoid pain, even though we oppose aggression consciously.

 We humans restrain our aggression most of the time. Instead of condeming ourselves for having these urges, we can appreciate ourselves for our ability to  manage them. We find ways to meet our needs without biting and release pent-up aggression in safe contexts like sports and poetry slams. We get pretty good results out of this mammal brain we've inherited. But it's useful to remember that the mammal brain wires iteslf from early experience. A pig may be born in a litter of 16 to a mother with only 8 teats. That piglet learns to fight from the moment of birth. If you put that little pig in a world of abundance, it will still be aggressive because the mammal brain wires itself in youth.

My pig feeding had an amazing ending. We left on the train we rode in on (this was a historic plantation tour), and three pigs ran alongside our train as far as their fence would allow. Their speed was amazing! I couldn’t imagine pigs running that fast. Why? No food came from the moving train and they must have known from experience. It seemed like a cargo cult.

Then I realize it was SEEKING behavior. Seeking feels good even without an immediate reward because it stimulates dopamine. Our brain evolved for seeking because that promotes survival. The act of seeking may be as important as food or social dominance. I am because I seek. Yet other people’s seeking often gets on your nerves. It’s helps to honor our urge to seek, even as we fine-tune our skill at managing it.

My book I, Mammal has lots more on the social rivalry caused by the mammal brain. It offers strategies for feeling good in a world where everyone else is a mammal.

My book Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity has lots more on how early experience wires our brain, and how we can rewire it quickly.