The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Why Violence Has Declined
by Steven Pinker. Viking Adult, 2011 ($40)

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), worldwide military expenditures have been growing annually for the past 15 years, and between 15 and 20 major armed conflicts—yes, wars—are in progress as you read this. All told, upward of 175 million people died in war-related violence during the 20th century, plus another eight million because of conflicts among individuals.

Even so, according to this weighty new book by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, the “better angels” of human nature have actually brought about a dramatic reduction in violence during the past few millennia. Yes, the absolute number of victims has been rising, but relative to the world's population, the numbers look good.

The shift toward nonviolence, he says, has been driven by many factors, such as the spread of agriculture and the rise of feminism and democracy. Such trends have led to a reduction in institutionalized torture and execution and slavery and, especially in recent years, to an increase in the rights of women, homosexuals, children and animals.

Pinker acknowledges that one's immediate experience belies these facts to the point where you might even want to call him “hallucinatory.” Yet the wealth of data he presents cannot be ignored—unless, that is, you take the same liberties as he sometimes does in his book. In two lengthy chapters, Pinker describes psychological processes that make us either violent or peaceful, respectively. Our dark side is driven by a evolution-based propensity toward predation and dominance. On the angelic side, we have, or at least can learn, some degree of self-control, which allows us to inhibit dark tendencies.

There is, however, another psychological process—confirmation bias—that Pinker sometimes succumbs to in his book. People pay more attention to facts that match their beliefs than those that undermine them. Pinker wants peace, and he also believes in his hypothesis; it is no surprise that he focuses more on facts that support his views than on those that do not. The SIPRI arms data are problematic, and a reader can also cherry-pick facts from Pinker's own book that are inconsistent with his position. He notes, for example, that during the 20th century homicide rates failed to decline in both the U.S. and England. He also describes in graphic and disturbing detail the savage way in which chimpanzees—our closest genetic relatives in the animal world—torture and kill their own kind.

Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker's entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease? By this logic, when we reach a world population of nine billion in 2050, Pinker will conceivably be satisfied if a mere two million people are killed in war that year.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is its overreliance on history, which, like the light on a caboose, shows us only where we are not going. We live in a time when all the rules are being rewritten blindingly fast—when, for example, an increasingly smaller number of people can do increasingly greater damage. Yes, when you move from the Stone Age to modern times, some violence is left behind, but what happens when you put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of modern people who in many ways are still living primitively? What happens when the unprecedented occurs—when a country such as Iran, where women are still waiting for even the slightest glimpse of those better angels, obtains nuclear weapons? Pinker doesn't say.
Robert Epstein


Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman.                                                                                                                   Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011 ($30)

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two of psychology's most venerable figures, used to joke that their area of expertise, decision making, was one their grandmothers already knew well. Luckily for us, their grandmothers must have been extremely clever ladies.

Take the concept that losses affect us more than gains, which the two men established. Although this idea may seem obvious, its consequences are not. For example, an analysis of 2.5 million putts in professional golf revealed that, regardless of the difficulty of the shot, players were more successful when striving for par than for one stroke under par. That is, the distaste for not reaching this benchmark motivated the golfers more than the desire to beat it, leading them to concentrate harder on nailing their next putt.

Now consider how a person's aversion to loss might affect a territory battle, a corporate restructuring or attempts to trim costs. Any reform will involve winners and losers; however, the underdogs will be more driven to fight against change and will inevitably temper the outcomes. Score one for the losers.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and professor emeritus at Princeton University, sets these findings and others in a broad model of the mind. Kahneman explains that humans evolved decision-making shortcuts to aid in survival; avoiding losses is one example. Often we can mediate these gut reactions with logical reasoning. Even so, the brain frequently runs up against its limits, leading to flaws in our thinking.

Knowing how those errors arise can come in handy in numerous fields, including health care. In one study, Kahneman's subjects placed a hand in icy water for 60 seconds and 90 seconds. After a minute elapsed in the 90-second trial, the experimenter silently warmed the water by one degree. When asked later which episode they would rather repeat, the participants paradoxically chose the longer one.

The subjects, it seems, recalled the average of their peak pain over the trial's duration, which was lower in the 90-second case, rather than the overall quantity of pain. They also remembered the end of each experience most vividly. Thus, Kahneman suggests that if the goal is to reduce the memory of pain, medical workers might prioritize softening a procedure's worst moment over shortening it. Such studies led Kahneman, famous for bridging psychology and economics, to begin crafting a model of how we evaluate our happiness.

The writing takes on a tender tone when he describes his longtime collaboration with Tversky, who died in 1996. For years they spent their afternoons in conversation, thinking up deceptive scenarios and examining each other's decisions. Kahneman writes in much the same way: almost every other page includes a thought experiment to elicit the reader's judgments. Stumbling into your own sloppy thinking makes their discoveries all the more personal.
Sandra Upson


The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt.                                                                                                                      Pantheon Books, 2012 ($28.95)

In a world where people draw lines in the sand between religions and the vitriolic waters of politics make islands of ideologies, Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind, offers a glimpse of hope.

According to Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, logic is not a suitable guide for interpreting moral issues. To better explain the relation between our moral inclinations and conscious thought, he uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider. The bulky elephant, which signifies our emotions, makes the first decisive moves along a moral trajectory. The rider, who embodies reason, attempts to steer the giant beast by concocting justifications for the new course. Understanding that our emotions are in control, Haidt believes, will help bridge the gap between groups with conflicting ideas.

Throughout the book, Haidt broadens the definition of morality to clarify why polarized groups, such as religious conservatives and atheists or Democrats and Republicans, often fail to see eye to eye. Morality, Haidt says, is not solely about fairness and preventing harm; it also incorporates notions such as liberty, loyalty and authority, and it serves to create bonds between people.

In the political realm, Haidt presents research to explain why Republicans and Democrats diverge as much as they do. Democrats care more about harm and fairness when making moral decisions than loyalty, authority or sanctity. Republicans, on the other hand, are better able to interweave these moral threads. Understanding that our feelings guide our behavior and that political adversaries have different emotional triggers, he writes, will help both groups come to terms with each other.

As for spirituality, Haidt argues that religions are ultimately less about believing in a higher power than about forming bonds with others and being part of something larger than oneself. To illustrate, Haidt draws parallels between religious groups and fans who pack college football games every week adorned in team colors, locked arm in arm and singing fight songs with their brethren. People are built to seek membership in a like-minded community, he attests, be it a Sunday church service or a stadium.

Though at times highly philosophical, Haidt's book is a must-read if you want to understand how conflicts arise—and how we might prevent them.
Brian Mossop