Is the World a Safer Place?


By: Kathryn Jeffords

On Thursday, September 22, the renowned psychologist Steven Pinker and primatologist Richard Wrangham will sit down with Marco Werman, host of PRI’s The World, to discuss the past and future of violence in humanity. Their discussion may surprise you. Despite the perception of worsening war and global conflict, both scholars provide a reality check on our views of violence today. Here’s a sneak peek of what they might discuss.

1. Let’s Quit Romanticizing the Past
When you ask them, virtually everyone believes that violence has increased over time. In fact, you’ve probably already read about a senseless act of violence or a terrorist bombing in today’s news. In a time of ISIS, Syria, and 9/11, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may seem hallucinatory. However, the data disproves this on every count.* Steven Pinker argues that this information is fundamental to the human existence. Despite popular belief, we are actually making things better on Earth. Declines in violence are a product of social, cultural and material conditions. If these conditions persist, violence will remain low or decline further.

2. Media creates a sense of solidarity and interconnectedness but…
It also allows the weak to look strong. Modern terrorist groups like ISIS seek publicity and attention to inspire fear. Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare: a battle of the weak vs. the strong. Terrorist groups leverage fear and emotional damage that is disproportionate to the actual damage to our lives or land. According to Pinker, Americans are 300 times more likely to be murdered in an everyday homicide than in a terrorist attack, and 3,000 times more likely to die in an accident.* Unfortunately, the human brain is unable to accurately perceive the true risk of groups like ISIS. Fallacies in risk perception cause us to exaggerate threats and thus distort public policy.

3. In Areas Where Women are Empowered, There is Less Violence
It’s very clear that in primates and humans, males are more aggressive than women. Richard Wrangham’s research shows that juvenile female chimpanzees use sticks as play things or sit with it while they are feeding. Juvenile male chimpanzees use them as weapons. As leaders, women are more thoughtful about the outcome of potential conflict; they are better at taking the perspective of the opponent and less likely to be ego driven.* For example Rwanda became the first country to have more women in the legislature. Pinker’s research identifies feminism as an “angel of our kind,” or a main factor in the decline of violence over time.

Want to learn more about the science of human nature? Join us at the Science Media Awards and Summit in the Hub (SMASH) this September, where Marco Werman of PRI’s The World will be leading the closing keynote with Richard Wrangham and Steven Pinker. 
Check it out here: To register for the conference or learn more about SMASH, check out our website at Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @scienceSMASH, #sciencemedia.

*Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.
*Wrangham, Richard. “Why We Kill” and “Powerful Women = Fewer Wars,” online interview with Big Think.
*Washington Blog. “What is the Real Risk from Terrorism in America.” Centre for Research on Globalization. June 2015.

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