Book Summaries History Politics Psychology

Ch. 8: Inner Demons (The Better Angels of Our Nature)

So far, Pinker has argued that the history of human beings has been shaped by violence. He has also noted that violence has declined. There is nothing about human nature that is exclusively violent or peaceful. The environment that we occupy, either through our own innovations or by sheer accident, is what determines our movement in either direction.

He then cites works of art that explore the violent nature of human beings.

Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream, Bible stories, Homeric sagas, martyrologies, portrayals of hell, hero myths, Gilgamesh, Greek tragedies, Beowulf, the Bayeux Tapestry, Shakespearean dramas, Grimm’s fairy tales, Punch and Judy, opera, murder mysteries, penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction, dime novels, Grand Guignol, murder ballads, films noirs, Westerns, horror comics, superhero comics, the Three Stooges, Tom and Jerry, the Road Runner, video games, and movies starring a certain ex-governor of California.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Even in wartime, many soldiers do not fire their weapons and are racked by posttraumatic stress disorder when they do. Some writers have concluded that most humans are constitutionally averse to violence. But the default human conditioning is towards violence. Even toddlers are violent. The question should not be why they are aggressive, but how they learn to not be aggressive?

We are attracted to extremes – illicit sex, violence, and giant leaps of status.

But if violence is hardwired into us, then why do soldiers feel reluctant to fire their guns in combat? A study found that less than 25 percent of veterans ever fired a gun in World War II.

It is not because human beings are gentle and compassionate that they exercise of constraint. Pinker cites Darwin and Hobbes when he analyzes the nature of violence. From these authors we can learn that human beings, unlike rocks, take part in a world everyone else takes part in. The individual that evolves violent tendencies is surrounded by other individuals who have evolved the same tendencies. If you harm others, they will probably harm you back. And others are motivated to harm you even before you harm them.

The Moralization Gap and The Myth of Pure Evil

There is a modern denial of the dark side of human nature.

Each person has either taken a perpetrator or victim viewpoint. The perpetrator excuses his behavior with self-serving facts “It’s not fair to blame me”. The victim frames the behavior of the perpetrator as a continuation of a series of mistakes, “You always do this”.

But self-serving biases are part of the evolutionary price we pay for being social animals. People congregate in groups for good reason. They look for warmth, cooperation, reciprocal exchange.

Trivers was the first to suggest that moral emotions were adaptations to cooperation. But there is more. When you convey an exaggerated impression of kindness and skill, others are bound to develop the ability to see through it – setting an evolutionary arms race between better liars and better lie detection. Lies can be spotted though internal contradictions, “A liar must have a good memory”, or through physical tells such as blushes and hesitations.

Trivers ventured that natural selection may have favored a degree of self-deception so as to suppress the tells at the source. We lie to ourselves so that we’re more believable when we lie to others. At the same time, an unconscious part of the mind registers the truth about our abilities so that we don’t get too far out of touch with reality. Trivers credits George Orwell with an earlier formulation of the idea: “The secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with a power to learn from past mistakes.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

But Self-deception makes the paradoxical claim that something called “the self” can both deceive and be deceived at the same time. It is easy to show that people are liable to self-serving biases, but it is difficult to show that people are liable to self-deception.

Two social psychologists ran a brilliant experiment where half the participants would get a pleasant tasks like looking through photographs for ten minutes, and half would get a difficult task like solving math problems for forty five minutes. The participants were told that they would be run in pairs, but it was not yet decided who got which task.

So they allowed each participant to choose one of two methods to decide who would get the pleasant task, and who would get the unpleasant one. The participants could either choose the easy task for themselves or they could use a random number generator that determined who would get the different tasks.

Since humans are selfish, almost everyone kept the pleasant task for themselves. In a questionnaire they were later given, almost everyone thought that they were being fair, but did not think that the way others behaved was fair at all. The difference between how they judged others and how they judged their own behavior is a classic example of self-serving bias.

But did the self-servers really believe that they were acting fairly? Or was did their unconscious brain register the truth, while the conscious spin doctor in their brains selected the most convenient narrative? The psychologists wanted to find out, so they tied up the conscious brains of the participants by asking them to hold seven digits in memory while they evaluated the experiment. Since their conscious minds were distracted, the terrible truth came out. The participants were as harsh on themselves as they were on other people. Trivers was right – the truth was in there all along.

This is an encouraging result, because it suggests that while we do tend to deceive ourselves, we also can acknowledge the truth. Freud suggested that we use denial, repression, reaction formation, and projection to postpone facing the truth, but at least in principle, it is possible.

Once you become aware of this fateful quirk in our psychology, social life begins to look different, and so do history and current events. It’s not just that there are two sides to every dispute. It’s that each side sincerely believes its version of the story, namely that it is an innocent and longsuffering victim and the other side a malevolent and treacherous sadist. And each side has assembled a historical narrative and database of facts consistent with its sincere belief.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Violence may be motivated by a need for dominance or practical considerations. The need for dominance can be tied to testosterone drives or Intermale Aggression system.

The practical, instrumental kind of violence where goals such as lust, power, or ambition is pursued is set up by the Seeking system in the brain and is guided by the person’s intelligence.

There are three other reasons for violence – and they include revenge, sadism, an ideology.

1 to 3 percent of males are psychopaths. And psychopaths are liars and bullies since childhood. Sometimes, psychopathy comes from brain damage, other times, it is heritable. Psychopathy evolved as a minority strategy that exploits a large population of trusting cooperators.

Many studies have shown that people are overly optimistic about their competence, health, intelligence, and athleticism. People also think they are inherently lucky, and most people think they are more likely than others to live a long life and to have gifted children. They also think they are less likely going to be a victim of accident, crime, disease, or unwanted pregnancy.

Why should people be so deluded? Positive illusions make people happier, more confident, and mentally healthier. But this does not explain why it is better to have positive illusions than to have a better sense of reality. A plausible explanation is that some degree of incredulity is evolutionarily useful. If you want to recruit an ally to support you in a risky venture, or bargaining for a better deal, or intimidating an adversary into backing down, you need to exaggerate your strengths if you are going to be given any credibility.

And it is better to believe your own bullshit than to cynically lie about it. Since lie detection co-evolved with the ability to lie, it is not a good tactic to constantly rely on deception. If your exaggerations are not ludicrous, then your audience will have to lend you some degree of credibility. It would be better for the species if everyone was completely honest, but this strategy is disastrous for the individual. You cannot afford to be the only honest person in a society of liars.

But overconfidence can make people engage in battles they cannot win. This is when it becomes dangerous. Many fights and wars happened for this reason.


Dominance hierarchies are based on more than brute strength. The ability to recruit allies, who choose to team up with the strongest and the smartest. The difference between predation and dominance is that the former is only about attaining the object of desire while the latter is about playing mind games (flaunting, flexing).

Dominance is also based on data. To avoid a fight, competitors must know who is stronger. Common knowledge may be undermined by contrary opinion, so dominance contests are also fought in the arenas of public information.

When dominance is reckoned within a closed group, it is a zero-sum game: if someone’s rank goes up, another’s has to go down. Dominance tends to erupt in violence within small groups like gangs and isolated workplaces, where a person’s rank within the clique determines the entirety of his social worth. If people belong to many groups and can switch in and out of them, they are more likely to find one in which they are esteemed, and an insult or slight is less consequential.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Testosterone usually makes animals more aggressive. But it is more complicated in humans. Men, for example, do not get more aggressive because of testosterone. But testosterone makes men more prepared for dominance contests.

In men, testosterone levels rise in the presence of an attractive female and in anticipation of competition with other men, such as in sports. Once a match has begun, testosterone rises even more, and when the match has been decided, testosterone continues to rise in the winner but not in the loser. Men who have higher levels of testosterone play more aggressively, have angrier faces during competition, smile less often, and have firmer handshakes.

Men with higher levels of testosterone also shake hands more firmly and perceive neutral faces as angry. Testosterone levels decline when men get married, have children, and spend time with their children. The hormone is an internal regulator of the basic tradeoff between parenting effort and mating effort where the latter consists of fending off rivals and wooing the opposite sex.

Over the past century, dominance as a concept has been deconstructed.


The development of sadism requires two things: motives to enjoy the suffering of others, and a removal of the restraints that ordinarily inhibit people from acting on them.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Human nature comes with four motives to find satisfaction in the pain of others. One is a fascination with the vulnerability of living things. This is what causes boys to fry ants with a magnifying glass, or adults to rubberneck at the scenes of automobile accidents. Another motive is mastery over the living world, including our own safety. Another is the enjoyability of seeing how the mighty have fallen, especially if they have tormented you. And another is to know that you can dominate others at will.

Sexual Sadomasochism

K. Baumeister hypothesizes that emotions come in pairs, just like complementary colors. When you take off rose-tinted googles, the colors you see are temporarily greenish. Our emotional state is similar – it is kept in equilibrium by a balance of opposing circuits. Fear is in balance with reassurance, euphoria with depression, hunger with satiety.

The difference between opposing emptions and complementary colors is how they change with experience. With the emotions, a person’s initial reaction gets weaker over time, and the balancing impulse gets stronger. As an experience is repeated, the emotional rebound is more keenly felt than the emotion itself. The first leap in a bungee jump is terrifying, and the sudden yoiiiiing of deceleration exhilarating, followed by an interlude of tranquil euphoria. But with repeated jumps the reassurance component strengthens, which makes the fear subside more quickly and the pleasure arrive earlier. If the most concentrated moment of pleasure is the sudden reversal of panic by reassurance, then the weakening of the panic response over time may require the jumper to try increasingly dangerous jumps to get the same degree of exhilaration.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

The action-reaction dynamic can be seen with positive initial experiences too. The first hit of heroin is euphoric and the withdrawal mild. But as the person turns into a junkie, pleasure decreases, and withdrawal symptoms come earlier and are more unpleasant. The compulsion to avoid withdrawal becomes stronger than the compulsion to attain euphoria.

According to Baumeister, sadism follows a similar trajectory. An aggressor experiences a revulsion to hurting his victim, but the discomfort cannot last forever, and eventually a reassuring, energizing counter emotion resets his equilibrium to neutral. With repeated bouts of brutality, the reenergizing process gets stronger and turns off the revulsion earlier. Eventually it predominates and tilts the entire process toward enjoyment, exhilaration, and then craving. As Baumeister puts it, the pleasure is in the backwash.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

On its own, the opponent-process theory is too simplistic. You would expect people to hit themselves on the head repeatedly because it feels so good when they stop. Obviously, not all experiences are governed by the tension between reaction and counteraction, nor by the same gradual weakening of the first and strengthening of the second.

There must be a subset of aversive experiences that especially lend themselves to being overcome. The psychologist Paul Rozin has identified a syndrome of acquired tastes he calls benign masochism.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

These paradoxical pleasures include eating hot chili peppers, strong cheese, dry wine, and taking part in extreme experiences like saunas, skydiving, racing, and rock climbing. These are all adult tastes where the novice must overcome their initial reaction of aversion on the way to becoming a connoisseur. All are acquired by controlling exposure to the stressor in gradually higher doses.

What they have in common is a coupling of high potential gains (nutrition, medicinal benefits, speed, knowledge of new environments) with high potential dangers (poisoning, exposure, accidents). The pleasure in acquiring one of these tastes is the pleasure of pushing the outside of the envelope: of probing, in calibrated steps, how high, hot, strong, fast, or far one can go without bringing on disaster.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

The advantage in the end is to unlock experiences that were previously closed off because of innate fears. Benign masochism is an overshooting of the mastery motive, and the revulsion-overcoming process can overshoot so far as to result in craving and addiction.

With sadism, the potential rewards are dominance, revenge and sexual access, while the potential dangers are retaliations from the victim. Sadists do become connoisseurs. This is both frightening and hopeful. Sadism is an ever present danger to individuals or security forces. But it needs to be acquired.


A big driver of violence is ideology. Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end, but with ideology, the end if idealistic (the greater good).

Yet for all that idealism, it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any
number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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