Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker spoke on how the balance between the features of the human mind that lead to violence and those that lead to peace have shifted over time at the Jepson Alumni Center as part of The Jepson Leadership Forum 2009- 10 Season on “The Common Good.”

A native of Montreal, Pinker is a Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard and has also taught at Stanford University and, for 21 years, at MIT. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has won a number of teaching prizes and was named among Newsweek's  "100 Americans for the Next Century." Foreign Policy magazine recently named Pinker one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world.

Pinker opened his speech with an example of the “Violent Present Illusion” – a psychological phenomenon that makes people think they live in times that are more violent than the past. One hundred percent of 265 people who took an online survey thought the present ranged from 15 percent to five times more violent than the past, he said.

Pinker said the easier it is to remember instances of violence the more likely people think it is to happen, but news trends of reporting violence, as well as technological advancements that allow for war coverage and greater access to information, have skewed people’s perceptions of violence. 

“Contrary to popular belief, our ancestors were far more violent than we are,” he said.  “Violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and today we’re probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

Forensic evidence determined that during hunter gatherer society, the likelihood of a male dying at the hands of another man rather than peaceably was 15 to 60 percent, Pinker said.  He also said indirect evidence from the past, such as the Bible, indicated that “by the standards of the day, violence was expected, even considered to be a morally praiseworthy activity.

“Anyone looking at the Old Testament will see that there were repeated exhortations by God to rape and massacre enemy peoples, often criticizing them if they had left anyone alive. And the Bible prescribes the death penalty for infractions such as homosexuality, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to parents and picking up sticks on the Sabbath.”

When people conceive of what is valuable in life they often think in terms of some idealized past, Pinker said, but the percentage of executions in the United States for crimes other than homicide declined from almost 100 percent in colonial times to virtually none today.

“Even in the United States, in the 17th and 18th centuries, capital punishment was deployed for crimes including theft, sodomy, buggery, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, arson, concealing birth, burglary, slave revolt, counterfeiting and horse theft,” he said.

On an international scale, there has been a decline in wars between great powers, wars between great powers and developing nations, civil wars and genocide from the year 1500 to 1975 in both frequency and duration, Pinker said.  “There used to be things like the 30 years war, the 80 years war, the 100 years war; in the 20th century we had the six day war,” he said.

But Pinker believed that although violence has declined, human nature has remained stable.

“We continue to enjoy vicarious violence,” he said.  “We take pleasure in seeing other people being murdered and hacked to bits, as you can see from the perennial popularity of murder mysteries, Greek tragedies, Shakespearian dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games and hockey – I say this as a Canadian.”

The forum is an annual speaker series organized by the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. The 2009- 10 season of the Forum explored “The Common Good,” the complicated tensions between the individual and the community, cooperation and competition, regionalism and globalism, and partiality and impartiality.  The conceptual roots of THE COMMON GOOD run deep in history, in society, and in the study of leadership. Just what is best for a group may require sacrifices by some group members. Sometimes, these costs are borne by few and sometimes, by many. Almost always, The Common Good asks that we constrain or rethink self-interest. How can the resulting good be truly common if some people suffer in the process of achieving it? And who decides who sacrifices? 


Watch the video of Steven Pinker’s speech here


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