Saturday, April 14, 2012

Reflections on Review in PsycCritiques of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Entry for 13 April 2012:


This is a really interesting book review and it sounds like an even more interesting book, by Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker argues that contrary to what we commonly believe, human beings are actually becoming not more violent but less violent over historical time, and especially over the past several centuries, including the most recent 100 years. 

The APA blog folks are asking for comments on why Pinker’s point seems so counter-intuitive.  It seems to me to be obvious and implicit in Pinker's point about the role of the mass media in overall violence reduction: that learning in detail about others’ lives through accounts in books and newspapers enables us to find empathy and compassion instead of demonizing or dismissing others who appear to be very different from us.  It seems to me that the flip side of this is perceiving violence as more prevalent than it actually is: We recognize ourselves in the Other's suffering, accessing both compassion for the Other and fear for ourselves.

In the 1990's I did a treatment development study comparing CBT to Process-Experiential therapy for crime-related PTSD.   Given how high profile criminal victimization is in the media, and how preoccupied people in our culture are with crime, we were very surprised at how hard it was to recruit participants.  We ended up concluding that there is an exaggerated cultural preoccupation with crime, fed by the news accounts continually boosting criminal victimization into our awareness, making it psychologically more available than would be expected from actual frequency.  And that was before the CSI and NCIS franchise really took off after the 9/11 attack! 

And then there is the very human tendency to experience things as generally going to hell.  This is nothing new: it dates back to our ancient myths about the Garden of Eden and the lost Golden Age.  It seems that we have been convinced that things are getting worse for a very long time!

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