Amidst the headlines tallying the damage wrought by persistent economic decline, cataclysmic climate change and unbending political stalemate — among other things — Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker brings good news.
In his new 802-page masterwork, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, the bestselling author and two-time honoree on TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world makes a nearly ironclad case for human progress toward peacefulness.
I recently spoke with Pinker about his book and the critical influences that can pacify the human brain.
TIME: What’s the most compelling evidence that violence has genuinely declined over the course of history?
PINKER: I guess what struck me first was the 35-fold decline of homicide in Europe since the Middle Ages. Various countries of Europe have kept homicide statistics since the Middle Ages and it’s a curve that plummets downward. So, quantitatively, that would be the most dramatic. Qualitatively, I think it would have to be the [shift in public opinion regarding] various forms of criminal punishment since the Middle Ages, such as disemboweling, impalement, breaking on the wheel. That played out until the early modern period, until the Enlightenment, the second half of the 18th century.
The gruesome and infinitely creative forms of tormenting someone for as long as possible, in as painful and as humiliating a manner as possible — that the human mind could even come up with these torments makes me ashamed of being a member of Homo sapiens. The fact that I have this reaction today, whereas at the time, it was fun for the whole family — people would come out to jeer and laugh and watch the doomed prisoner struggle and scream in agony — that difference I think would be the most dramatic and qualitative example of the decline in violence.
What about the Holocaust? Some say the 20th century was the bloodiest time ever. How can you say that things are getting better?
It’s confusing a data point with a trend. The idea that the Holocaust was a terrible event is certainly true. But what’s not true is that this was a sign of things getting worse and worse. For one thing, before the 20th century, there were plenty of genocides. We tend to forget about them, partly because they weren’t as well documented and partly because until recently, people didn’t care. We used euphemisms like sackings and sieges instead of calling them genocides.
It’s not true that the 20th century saw the origin of genocide. Of course, genocides didn’t end in 1950. There were genocides in China, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur. Still the trend is not upward. The trend is downward. Especially when calculated as a portion of the world’s population. The rate of death in genocide has come down since the peak in the 1940s.
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So, how did society climb out of the pigsty of the Middle Ages?
According to a theory that I cite by Norbert Elias, the German sociologist, the decline of violence in Europe went hand in hand with the change in manners. We know from cultural history that what we now consider dignified manners developed gradually in Europe in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity.
Elias suggested that there was a causal relationship. Mainly that when you wait for everyone to sit down before falling on the carcass in the middle of the table, when you remember to chew with your mouth closed and not to gnaw on a bone and put it back in the serving dish, not to slurp soup out of your saucer, all of this general habit of cultivating delay of gratification and self-control spills over into control of impulsive violence. So, you’re less likely, he argued, to respond to an insult with violent outburst.
You see this in terms of gradually training the “higher” parts of the brain to exert more self-control over impulses.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister showed that when people’s self-control has been temporarily fatigued by having to resist a temptation they’re weaker at resisting further temptations. In fact at least in the weak forms of violence you can study in the lab, they’re more likely to commit acts of violence. Also you can train up the self-control, almost as if it’s a muscle that is being strengthened. If it’s trained in one domain of life, it generalizes to another.
Students, for example, who inhibit the habit of swearing in every sentence, or who make an effort to speak in complete sentences, also lose weight, study more, put away the dishes and show other forms of discipline in their lives.
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Why did people start developing manners in the first place?
According to Elias, it was a part of a more general political and economic transformation in Europe. The political transformation was that the patchwork of local barons and knights constantly fighting each other for turf, like mafiosi or drug lords, [was] replaced by a centralized government in which the king would exert control over a territory and the nobility would have to visit the court and kiss up to the king to get their privileges. Therefore, they had to develop behavior that was appropriate to kissing up to the king’s entourage, which is why [they had to learn to restrain themselves].
It’s also why we have words like courtly and courtesy, which come from the word court — namely, appropriate behavior for the king’s court.
So sucking up saved the world?
Sucking up saved the world, exactly — at least more so than splitting heads as a means of getting ahead. The other change was a growing infrastructure of commerce. There were both financial and technological changes that made commerce increasingly tempting.
Roads, better harnesses for horses, time-keeping devices, financial instruments like a currency that was recognized everywhere in the kingdom, enforceable contracts — all of this made commerce more appealing than plunder. Commerce in turn, selects for a different set of mental talents. That is, instead of being the baddest knight in the kingdom, you have to keep the customer satisfied.
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So capitalism also saved the world?
Capitalism saved the world, and there is even a heretical theory now, moving up from the level of individuals to countries: countries that trade more and have more open economies are less likely to fight wars and less likely to have genocides. It’s a heretical idea called the capitalist peace, which comes as quite a shock to a child of the ’60s like me, for whom capitalists were merchants of death and masters of war and all that stuff.
This also sort of suggests that those who opposed rock and the 1960s’ casual hippie culture may have had a point.
As an aging baby boomer, it’s very painful to consider the possibility that there might be some truth in that. But I don’t think it’s completely farfetched — as painful as it is to admit. The explosion of violent crime in the 1960s cannot be explained by demographics alone. It wasn’t just that there were more young people and young people commit more violence.
Even the number crunchers often say that there was some sort of cultural change. What was the cultural change? It can’t be a complete coincidence that if you were to describe cultural changes of the ’60s, it would be a perfect description of Norbert Elias’ civilizing process run backward.
Although on the other hand you do have these movements like the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights and the anti-war movement, gay rights…
Yes. [And that furthers the civilizing process.] [But those are] cases in which you’re talking about intellectualized policies that apply to groups. When it comes to the one on one interaction that drive homicide rates, mainly whether you have a fight in a bar that ends up with a bunch of dead bodies, [that may be affected by things like disinhibition that could be linked with a reduced emphasis on manners].
What about the role of literacy in taming our violent side?
I think it may not be a coincidence that the rise of printing and book publication and literacy and the phenomenon of best sellers all preceded the humanitarian reforms of the Enlightenment. Other plausible variables like affluence didn’t take off until the 19th century with the industrial revolution. So, people got literate before they got rich. They eliminated breaking on the wheel and slavery after they got literate and before they got rich.
What’s the connection? One connection is that as Voltaire said, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. When you have a better appreciation of how the world works, you’re less likely to blame crop failures on witches or diseases on Jews poisoning wells.
So there’s the debunking of malarkey that could lead to atrocities. There is also the possibility that getting into the habit of seeing the world through the eyes of another person, which is what you do when you read, can develop theory of mind and hence empathy. There is some experimental evidence that is true. There is also just the ability to learn lessons of history.
There are studies showing that literate populations are more likely to become democratic 10 years down the line, even holding everything else like wealth and age constant.
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Compared with Europe, the U.S. has high murder rate and high levels of inequality. Some people have argued that inequality promotes violence and other negative health outcomes like infant mortality and reduced lifespan. What do you think about that?
There is a correlation between economic inequality and personal violence. The explanation for the correlation isn’t completely clear; there are a number of possibilities. One of them is that societies with a lot of inequality deprive their poor people of police protection and so there are huge parts of the country that are effectively in a state of anarchy because policing is a luxury that is claimed by the rich.
A second possibility, not mutually exclusive with the first, is that people, especially young men who live in an unequal society, sense that there is more status competition — almost as if the world is telling them this is a place where the winners get everything and the losers get nothing. That makes them more status conscious, hence more liable to retaliate against insults with violence.
So if things actually are getting better, why do we always think they’re getting worse and that “these kids today” are disgraceful thugs?
It’s partly because we care more. More and more categories of behaviors that weren’t even considered examples of violence in the past are considered heinous now.
My favorite example is the recent campaign to stamp out bullying. No one less than the President of the United States gave a speech against the horrors of bullying. Twenty years ago, this would have been considered a joke. Bullying was a part of growing up. Boys will be boys. It’s necessary to toughen them up; you don’t want a whole generation of sissies, etc.
Now we see life from the point of view of a bullied child. We’ve now moved bullying from the category of ordinary childhood experience into a category of violence, and targeted it for elimination.
We care more and more about the human race. If there is a dreadful war in Africa, it’s no longer just natives just killing each other, but we consider them to be inside the human family and deaths in any part of the world are a part of our moral concern now. It’s a very good thing. [We’ve even expanded this concern to] animals.
So we’ve been expanding our circle of sympathy and our standards have risen. What used to be counted as unexceptionable, we now count as violence.
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What about those who say that violent video games and pornography will doom this generation to more violence?
The era of when video games became an enormous industry is also the era in which real-life crime plummeted. Since 1992, violent crime in the United States and most other Western countries has dropped, by a lot. From a peak of about 10 homicides per 100,000 people per year, now down to about 4.8. That was just in the era in which video games exploded.
I tend to think that various moral panics about violent entertainment are misdirected. Human violence is not just a question of, If you have a weapon, you have to use it. If you see other people do it, you do it. People have reasons to commit violence. Their reasons may be that they have something to gain. It might be that they have someone to punish. But generally, for one reason or another, they want harm to come to someone. It’s not simply that they have the means to do it, they have to want it to happen for violence to break out in significant quantities.
How about the current clash over the economy and the sense of betrayal felt by so many?
Yeah, I think there are all kinds of possibilities of how violence could return, although I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Even the political anger that we are witnessing in this country now, from both sides of the spectrum — the Tea Party movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement —
— which is having a big march right now.
As we speak. A nonviolent march. By the standards of history, whenever the price of bread went up, you would murder some Jews, burn down a section of town, ransack businesses, drag noblemen out of their homes and cut their throats —
— get the pitchforks out.
Exactly. So, we take it for granted. The Tea Party Movement has not been setting off any bombs. The Occupy Wall Street movement has not been lynching any bankers. So times have changed in a benevolent direction.
Do you think that this positive trend can continue indefinitely? Or will a vicious cycle of, say, lapsing trust due to economic failure and inequality, or fights over land due to climate change, lead to clashes?
I think it’s always a danger that there will be relapses. I don’t think that human nature has changed. I think that when it comes to violence on some scales like war, there is a big random factor that goes into it; a lot wars were unpredictable. So it would be rash to say that it can’t happen, although I think the probability could go down.
It would be foolish to say that the chances are zero, but I think you’d also be foolish to say, as so many people have said, that it is inevitable. Even if one nuclear weapon was exploded by a terrorist group, it’s very different from the fear that we grew up with of every city in the Soviet Union and the Western world being annihilated. The fear that we grew up with is no longer high on the list of probabilities.
See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.