What Makes Us Violent?

The Globe and Mail has a fantastic article on aggression, delving into deep philosophical and psychological issues of what exactly makes violent people violent.

Hint: It’s not TV.
(Or videogames.)

The article focuses mostly on the work of Dr. Richard Tremblay, who the article cites as “one of the world leaders in aggression studies.” It’s interesting stuff.

While the article itself doesn’t give you a particularly good sense of how controversial some of the ideas may be (it’s not entirely obvious, for instance, what portions of the theories are well-accepted and which parts, if any, are maybe a little questionable in mainstream academic circles), the ideas themselves are certainly enough to make you think, re-think, and then think again about our mad world.

First and foremost in the article is the idea that aggression is not learned, but is socialized away (unless it’s not, which is when we end up with problems):

“Aggressive behaviour, except in the rarest circumstances, is not acquired from life experience. It is a remnant of our evolutionary struggle to survive, a force we learn, with time and careful teaching, to master.

“[says Dr. Tremblay,] ‘Physical aggression is not an illness one catches… It is a natural behaviour that one learns to control. But the learning is not perfect. Socialization is a thin veneer.’

“Which explains why, he says, it is so often the quiet, agreeable types who storm into their office building toting a rifle — the veneer having cracked in a sudden explosion. But never, in all the studies, including those replicated in New Zealand and the United States, did he find a passive child who grew up to be an aggressive adult; the raging adults were the raging children who never leashed their anger.” (emphasis added)

The article also goes to cite other correlations—smoking during pregnancy and an increased propensity for violence in the child, frontal-lobe injuries and violence, etc.—which go to show some of the complexities researchers must deal with who are trying to sort out the causes of aggression and how to make people more peaceable.

To put the article’s title into question form, who are the most violent people on earth?

Apparently, two year olds.

“Researchers argue that society must stop excusing aggression in early childhood. Ignoring the problem could mean a child’s path is set irrevocably toward delinquency, dropping out of school, and crime. Intervention, it seems, needs to come sooner than ever. If aggressive children don’t learn to control their anger early, they might never learn at all.”

Says Dr. Tremblay, “If you put your four-month-old to bed one night, and went in in the morning and he was suddenly six feet tall and 200-plus pounds, you should just run away. Because he will really beat you up.”

It’s a fascinating article, with lots of seriously, desperately important ramifications. Read it.

(via Globe and Mail: “The Most Violent People On Earth,” by Erin Anderssen and Anne McIlroy [April 3, 2004]; cartoon is from P.S.Mueller’s home page, which you should definitely visit.)