Even though the media bombards us daily with reports of violence, we are actually living in an unprecedented era of relative peace, says Harvard University cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, PhD, author of the new book "The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." In it, Pinker suggests that aggression and bloodshed have been diminishing for a variety of reasons, including the growth of competent government, trade, literacy, the media and the empowerment of women.
Despite this encouraging news, his in-depth study of violence also revealed alarming details about humans' capacity for evil throughout history.
"The most unpleasant surprise in writing the book was the degree of human ingenuity that went into the crafting of torture techniques in the ancient and medieval world," he says.
gradPSYCH asked Pinker to share his favorite titles on the psychology of violence.
"Evil: Inside Violence and Cruelty"
(1996) by Roy F. Baumeister, PhD
"Baumeister reviews the various psychological roots of evil and what we know about them from social psychology, history and criminology. He convincingly argues that aggression does not come from a single motive in humans, but a variety of motives, such as practical means-end reasoning, moralistic vengeance, dominance and utopian ideologies. He also shows how the human conception of harm-doing, including violence, very much depends on whether one takes the viewpoint of the perpetrator or of the victim. There is a perpetrator psychology and a victim psychology, and the two can describe the same events in extraordinarily different terms."
(1988) by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly
"The husband-and-wife team was interested not so much in homicide as in human conflict, or how one person's life goals can clash with the life goals of another. They reasoned that homicides are the most extreme manifestation of violence, and that violence is the most extreme manifestation of conflict. Homicides have always attracted people's attention, and they are easy to count, so homicide rates have been tabulated across the centuries and across societies in a more precise way than any other measure of conflict. By looking at the way homicides are distributed across different human relationships, you can get insight into the conflicts that animate social life more broadly."
"Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City"
(1998) by David T. Courtwright
"America provides some of the biggest puzzles in the contemporary statistics of violence. Why is America so much more violent than other democracies? Why are the American South and Southwest so much more violent than the rest of the country? Why do African-Americans commit more acts of violence in this era than Americans of European descent? Courtwright takes on these puzzles in a rich narrative, which weaves American history with evolutionary psychology, neurobiology and the psychology of gender."
"Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct"
(2008) by Michael E. McCullough
"The psychology of revenge and forgiveness expertly presented and explained."