Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World. I’m now going to perform a trick; I’m going to say the words Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza, and magically turn The World’s lead story today into a good news story. You must be feeling like war and violence is more widespread around the globe than ever and you would not be alone. Even his holiness, Pope Francis, warned earlier this month that a piecemeal WWIII may have already begun. Hang on though, stop the presses. A statistical reality check may be in order here. Steven Pinker, are we in more violent times, yes or no?
Steven Pinker: No. Violence exists. It hasn’t gone down to zero, but past decades were far more violent.
Werman: Well, Steven Pinker has crunched the numbers. Listeners may remember your 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. You’re a professor of psychology at Harvard, so explain why it feels like violence is on the rise, but you maintain it’s not.
Pinker: Your view of the world from the news, you’re always going to think that we’re living in violent times because if anything blows up, if there’s any shooting anywhere in the world, it instantly gets beamed across the globe. News is about stuff that happens. It’s not about stuff that doesn’t happen, and as long as violence hasn’t gone down to zero, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news. You really could only get a sense of how violent the world is and what the trends are if you count. If you also look at all the places in the world that aren’t blowing up, and that is not going to be on the news. You never see a reporter standing on the streets of Mozambique or Colombia, saying there’s no war this year, but there were wars in past years. And we forget about them because they aren’t news. What you have to do, of course, is count the number of wars, count the number of people killed in war, plot the trend over time. That's how you get a picture of whether the world has become more or less violent. It’s the only way to get such a picture.
Werman: And you’ve done the counting, so what does the graph kind of look like?
Pinker: Well, if you start, obviously, the world has seen nothing like the second world war, but just to calibrate how bad things could be, during the worst wars of WWII, there were about 300 war deaths per 100,000 people per year. During the years of the Korean War in the early â€˜50s, that was in the low 20s. During the â€˜60s, the era of the Vietnam War, it was in the teens. During the â€˜80s and â€˜90s, it fell into the single digits, and in the 21st century, for most of the century it’s been less than 1. Now, there has been an uptick since the onset of the Syrian civil war and the violence in Iraq. In the last couple of years it has inched up from about a half a war death per 100,000 per year to one, so that is a doubling, but still you can’t compare one with 15. or 25 or 300.
Werman: So, you’re a psychologist. Talk about why the sense that the world is kind of caving in right now, that it’s spiraling out of control, and contrast that with the numbers that you found. I mean there is a sense that it’s a violent place, maybe more violent than ever, and yet psychologically, you must have some finger on the pulse of that.
Pinker: Yeah, cognitive psychologists talk about the availability bias, a term invented by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, according to which we judge risk by how easy it is to remember examples. Now, of course, you take a course in intro stats and you realize that’s not a good way to estimate probability, can I think of an example, but that’s the way the human mind works without statistical training. How likely am I to get eaten by a shark, well it depends on whether I read about a shark attack last week in the papers; and that doesn’t tell you anything about the probability of getting eaten by a shark, but that’s the way the human mind works.
Werman: So it will be hard for me to convince our listeners to say, you know, journalists are getting their heads cut off, ISIS is a major threat, but violence is down, you should be happy. What would you say to that?
Pinker: That you’ve got to think clearly, that you should not base your view of the world on images because that’s just not an accurate indicator of the shape of the world. And I think journalists are to be credited for making us aware of violence wherever it occurs, but journalists should also put things into both historical and statistical perspective. That’s just the way that you’re not wrong. If you just simply say here’s a violent event, therefore, the world is getting more violent, you’re making a mathematical error. You’re misleading your listeners.
Werman: Do you think there are more complex reasons why people perceive an increase in violence around them?
Pinker: Yes, together with the cognitive bias that we’re overly influenced by events, there’s also a moralistic bias, namely, if you have some sort of cause, if you’re trying to rally supporters behind a movement, people think the most effective way to do it is to get people the impression things are getting worse and that they have to act now; otherwise, things will get worse still. Personally, I’m not convinced that’s the best way to mobilize people for a cause because it’s easy to throw up your hands and say well, that part of the world is a hell hole, they’ve always hated each other, they’ll always hate each other...it’s intractable, there’s nothing we can do about it. When you start to see that intractable conflicts aren’t; that is, people can seemingly hate each other for a long time and then lay down their arms and not pick them up again, it kind of emboldens you to say well, maybe we could do it again.
Werman: Do you find a lot of people kind of surprised at the tact you take with your research?
Pinker: Some, although for me, it’s a natural development because I’ve always been interested in human nature; and as soon as you bring up the concept of human nature, people worry that uh if we have violent impulses, does that mean that we’re permanently doomed to violence? And so it’s a natural question for someone interested in human nature, and the answer is human nature has many parts. I think it really does have impulses that lead to violence, but it also has components that can suppress violence, like self control, like empathy, like reason. And we’ve slowly and gradually, haltingly figured out workarounds for our darker side. We’ve figured out things like the rule of law, and an international community, and ideals of nonviolence that can not in one fell swoop, but kind of chip away at our tendency toward violence, and so one part of human nature has been mobilized against another. That’s what makes it a psychological problem.
Werman: Do you think human nature is changing?
Pinker: I don’t think human nature is changing, but I think human nature is complex enough, including an open-ended, creative intellectual faculty that we can come up with clever workarounds for the parts of human nature that are still with us and that can still lead to violence in certain parts of the world.
Werman: Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, great to have you in. Thank you.
Pinker: Thank you.
Werman: You can see Steven Pinker further explain his perspective on violence on planet Earth. Watch a video of his TED Talk on the subject on PRI.org.