Interview: Steven Pinker, research psychologist | HistoryNet MENU

Interview: Steven Pinker, research psychologist

By Stephen L. Petranek
8/10/2017 • American History Magazine

Steven Pinker’s message in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is explosive. Reaching back to the beginnings of human history and exhaustively and compellingly tracing the naked ape’s behavior over millennia, he shows convincingly that “this is a good time to be a potential victim.” Pinker is the Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard University. He has done extensive research on how the brain understands what the eyes see, how children learn language and what twins can tell us about how the mind works. He is the chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. His previous bestsellers include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought.

Although violence has declined, why is America more violent than so many other nations?

A common cultural emphasis leads America to have a higher homicide rate than other Western democracies, and also makes Americans more punitive of the crimes that occur. Since the country’s earliest days, the South and the West have cultivated a “culture of honor,” which sacralizes the human instinct for revenge: One is entitled, indeed obligated, to respond with violence to any harm directed against you or your family. At the interpersonal level, petty insults and disputes can escalate into violence as the injured party feels justified in retaliating. At the level of policy, people in an honor culture tend to impose draconian prison sentences. The Southern American states have higher rates of personal violence in fights, often in retaliation against insults. Their opinions on foreign policy are more hawkish. They apply harsher criminal penalties, including the death penalty. And they are more likely to use corporal punishment in schools.

Does Southern violence have its roots in our history?

The historian David Hackett Fisher claims that the North/South difference goes back to the different populations of British settlers that landed in different parts of America. The Northeast was settled by farmers and city dwellers from England, together with the Netherlands and Germany, whereas the inland South was settled by Scots-Irish herders. Herding peoples often develop a culture of honor because their wealth is easily stolen—rustlers can make off with all of your assets in an eyeblink. Pastoralists all over the world are fierce. The Scottish highlands, the mountainous areas of Sicily, the Old Testament tribes, the Masai all protect their interests with the credible threat of revenge. According to Fisher, that ecological imperative persists as a cultural difference between the North and the South to this day. Social psychologist Richard Nisbett, inspired by Fisher, showed that among students at the University of Michigan, those that grew up in the South are more likely to respond to a trivial insult with rising testosterone, a surge in the stress hormone cortisol, an angrier face, a firmer handshake and an unwillingness to step aside to let another student pass in a narrow hallway.

Why has the American West been historically violent?

The West was in a state of anarchy until the “closing of the frontier” at the end of the 19th century. The cliché from the cowboy movies was often true: “The nearest sheriff is 90 miles away.” The implication was that you had to protect your interests with your own gun and a willingness to use it. The mountain South also was beyond the reach of the law for long stretches of American history, and hostile to the idea that justice was the responsibility of the state. An honorable man had to protect himself and his family with the credible threat of violence, and that response to anarchy became embedded in the culture and persists to this day.

What about the role of women in the West?

Throughout the history of the world, women are, in general, a pacifying force. This is true in tribal societies: Tribes in which women’s interests are respected tend to be involved in fewer tribal wars. It’s also true in the international arena: Women take more dovish positions in opinion polls, and they have voted for the more dovish presidential candidate in every election since 1980. Women can be a pacifying force in a second way. In societies in which women are more empowered, they have greater control over their reproduction; when they do, they pump out fewer children than in societies where their men force them to be baby factories. As a result, a female-empowering society is less likely to have a bulge of underemployed and unattached young men. Even worse, some of these societies practice female infanticide or female-selective abortion, which means they also have more young men than women. Gangs of underemployed and unattached men are trouble.

Was a lack of women in the West a factor?

According to David Courtwright in his book, Violent Land, large parts of the West were male-only enclaves— cowboy towns, mining camps, laborer camps. That resulted in high rates of violence because the men competed for dominance since it was the dominant men who could attract the scarce women. Courtwright notes that the other cliché of the old Westerns— when women come to a town they socialize the men—has a considerable degree of historical truth. Women would join forces with the churches, and they made it their mission to get the men out of saloons, brothels and gambling dens and to settle down in a family friendly lifestyle.

Men are responsible for violence?

They are. Violent fantasies, violent entertainment, violent games, play-fighting in childhood and the perpetration of violence on large and small scales—all of these are far more prevalent among males than females.

Studies show that from 1990 to 2007, rates of physical abuse of children in the United States fell by half, and sexual abuse fell by almost half. Are children in the U.S. safer today than 100 years ago?

It is unlikely that a child 200 years ago could have grown up without being struck in anger, or without being the recipient of some kind of corporal punishment.

All children?

Certainly most. Most children were hit, a number of them were hit every day. Today corporal punishment is increasingly seen as child abuse and replaced by scoldings and time outs and withdrawal of privileges. This isn’t true of every sector of the population, though. Christian fundamentalists are adamant that corporal punishment is necessary to socialize a child, and rates of corporal punishment are higher among African-American families and Asian-American families.

Is there something else specific to America that make us more prone to violence?

As the historian Pieter Spierenburg put it, “democracy came too early to America.” In Europe, first monarchs disarmed the population and claimed a state monopoly on the use of violence. Then people took over the government and made it democratic. In the United States, people got a democratic government before everyone had been disarmed. As a result, the people did not cede control of violence to the state but reserved the right to exercise it themselves. In societies where vengeance is outsourced to a disinterested third party, rates of violence are lower than when private citizens act as judge, jury and executioner.

 

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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