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More PsychNotes: Policies and Issues in Mental Healthcare

Violence is Declining (Part 1)
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Most people find it difficult to believe we are living in the most peaceable time in human history. We tend to be nostalgic for the past believing we were safer, times were simpler, and we were happier: “In the good ole' days...”

Why do we have the impression that our world is becoming more violent? Because media has mushroomed. At one time the U.S. only had three television networks and the news was focused on providing facts. However, now with the proliferation of media, to stay in business the media has to get our attention. And how do they do that? By playing on our emotions. Sensationalizing. Fear grabs our attention. The media is like vultures, circling, circling, above the dead. Almost relishing the sordid narratives they spin, sort of like the neighborhood gossip seeking attention by delightedly describing the tales of woe of her neighbors: “Did you hear about the Smiths?! Well, let me tell you...”

I have started reading a book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by psychologist Stephen Pinker, Ph.D. (2011) that meticulously documents (over 800 pages!) the historical and statistical evidence showing the decline of violence in our world and discusses why these trends are occurring. Although I had previously come to the same conclusions, when I express this idea to people, they often incredulously attack me with “How can you believe that?” and start listing the signs of violence in our world. However, this book provides the evidence I can use to back my more intuitive assertions.

Certainly, our world is full of violence, but the facts show that violence is on the decline when we examine the whole of human history. Dr. Pinker describes how violence has declined with major changes in civilization: from the anarchy of survival, to hunting/gathering societies, to agriculturally-based cities with a central government, to the Age of Reason in the 17th-18th centuries, to our modern day era of civil rights.

Violence is decreasing even as (and perhaps because) our perception of it is increasing. In the distant past violence was a way of life, and therefore, was not abhorred as it is today. The fact that we are horrified by violence shows how we have developed a collective conscience. We strive to decrease violence. Prior to the 17th century, a time when we were just beginning to understand our world, human beings were not trying to change the world. Now we seek to change it.

In the not so distant past, men tortured, raped, and enslaved others with impunity. Not only were they free from punishment, but the code of the “spoils of war” gave them the right to rape and enslave others. Even though these behaviors may endure to some degree, we do not as a society condone them. Instead, we punish such behaviors and seek to eliminate violence not just towards other societies and races, but specifically, towards women, children, and even, animals.

The tendency of people is to judge their world according to what they see. As such, they see evidence of violence all around. To the end that such a view promotes action towards change, it can be positive and healthy. But when the viewpoint is that our world is doomed to violence and destruction, only escalating our fear, it prevents us from taking action. By understanding our history and that we have improved over time, it can encourage us in our endeavor to create a more peaceful world.

(As I read this book and other thoughts come to mind, I will continue to share these thoughts in future PsychNotes).

Pinker, Steven. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books, New York.

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