Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Humans bad at violence?

The Chronicle of Higher Ed interviews sociologist Randall Collins on his new book Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (Princeton University Press). I haven't read the book yet, but I find many of his points quite plausible. I always found the S.L.A. Marshall statistics (see below) that only about 25% of soldiers fire their guns in combat quite interesting -- believable, particularly for conscripts, but presumably correctable with training.

Collins notes that most people are generally quite reluctant to initiate violence. It's also true that very few people are competent (in a technical sense) at inflicting injury on others.

Violence, Up Close and Personal: A sociologist challenges prevailing theories of when, and why, people lash out

Randall Collins, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks human beings are bad at violence. Is the man mad? Any newspaper would seem to falsify his claim, offering up a bestiary of child killers, cross-tribal ethnic cleansers, and suicide bombers, not to mention military attacks sanctioned by law but still brutally sanguinary.

Collins, author of the new book Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (Princeton University Press), is not so naïve as to deny that the globe is drenched in blood. But he argues that to confront another human being and do him harm is far more psychologically difficult than most social scientists appreciate. "There is," he writes, "a palpable barrier to getting into a violent confrontation." And the resulting anxiety makes people lash out incompetently. Most people back down from fistfights after a bit of trash talking. And in war, more soldiers cower than attack the enemy effectively.

To make his case that we have no talent for violence, Collins adduces evidence ranging from the low casualty rates in most Greek and Roman battles to photographs documenting how few people in "violent" crowds on the West Bank are actually wreaking havoc. (Modern photojournalism has opened doors for this subfield of sociology, he argues.) He also includes his own voyeuristic accounts of confrontations on the streets of Philadelphia and other American cities, which tend to confirm that most showdowns peter out at the bluster stage.

In a discursive, 550-page book, Collins manages to fold into his theory such topics as domestic violence, British sports hooliganism, and the history of duels (a method of cabining violence to a scale where humans can stomach it). Along the way, he rips into some prevailing sociological theories, including the idea that much violence among disadvantaged groups amounts to a form of political "resistance." That theory, he suggests, has a "twisted quality," lauding thugs who are the violent exception and who prey mostly on members of their own low socioeconomic groups.

He also has few kind words for the reigning evolutionary-psychological interpretation of violence, which sees it as a holdover from a long prehistory in which men competed ruthlessly for status and mates. Collins does not reject biology but cites a different Darwinian drive: the human desire to form social bonds. A visceral aversion to throwing a punch, even if the recipient richly deserves it, he writes, "is the evolutionary price we pay for civilization."

The seed of the book, Collins says, lay in his 1975 book, Conflict Sociology, which examined the competition among various economic, ethnic, and cultural groups. "After having written that, I realized it was about conflict, all right, but nobody ever did anything to each other," he says. "There was no real fighting in it."

He's remedied the omission — and then some. Now he is so immersed in real violence that it will spill over into a sequel, which will encompass topics given short shrift in Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory, including rape and decisions by states to go to war.

[Interview follows] ...

A lot of people would say that nature is red in tooth and claw and all that — that modern violence is a carry-over from the evolutionary past. What's wrong with that picture?

If you look at the history of fighting, you find that primitive people are actually not very good at fighting. We do have some anthropological films of tribes in wars, and it looks almost like a dance routine. You'll get 100 or so men of the tribe shouting and chanting and waving their spears and bows and arrows, and out of that group a few — six or eight — will run up toward the front line. One or two will dash across the line, throw a spear, then turn around and run and come back in. This may go on for a while until someone gets a spear — usually in the back — when they run away. Then they decide to stop.

Early in the book you put a lot of weight on the finding of the military historian S.L.A. Marshall that only something like 15 percent to 25 percent of American infantrymen fired their weapons in combat. Have his figures held up? And is that figure still true in current conflicts?

There's been controversy about that. At the time of the Second World War and the Korean War, some officers, typically higher officers, said they didn't believe [that figure] — it was just an insult to the troops. Other officers said they thought it was approximately right. It's generally thought now that Marshall was sort of giving a ballpark figure. Surveys from the Vietnam War show generally much higher figures if you ask them whether they ever fired their guns. If you ask them if they are doing a lot of firing, it starts looking more like Marshall's figures: Twenty to 25 percent are really gung ho and do lot of firing, and most of the others fire some of the time, but they aren't very enthusiastic about it.

You talk about panic firing during military combat, and firing among troops. And in an analogy you draw, you also find a lot of panicked firing and incompetent shooting among gang members, and only a few people taking part.

We've got sort of a sieve that goes down by two levels. The first level is whether people are actually engaged in the violence, whether it's shooting guns or throwing punches. Then there's the second level of how competent they are at it: whether they actually hit what they intended, whether they hit anything. … That's true in the case of cops and robbers — both sides — as well as in the Army. U.S. forces have been trained to try to overcome this nonfiring problem [by doing] a huge amount of firing, and so it's not too surprising that in that situation bystanders get hit.

... How is it ugly in one-on-one situations?

In one-to-one situations, it's usually not ugly so much as it is boring. There's a really strong tendency for people to jaw at each other, and then eventually the fight winds down because it becomes so repetitive. It's not difficult to keep fights from escalating as long as it's one on one. All you have to do is be really boring. They will keep on trying to escalate the fight, but you just stay at the same level.

Bore your opponent into submission. I think I could handle that.

You can actually see in videotapes people say the same thing over and over and over again, 10, 20 times. That's actually quite distinctive of conflict talk.

What if people are violent and want to be violent, but they also don't want to be hurt, so they need to get themselves pumped up or otherwise push themselves forward into violence? Couldn't that be another explanation for what you've observed?

We can actually take a fair amount of pain if it's not in a conflictual type of situation. People in disasters tend to behave quite heroically; people in medical situations who are under a lot of pain tend to behave surprisingly well. Soldiers are put through painful body-stressing exercises. But the same people seem to have trouble with the notion of actually hitting somebody else in a combat situation or even in a fistfight. It looks as though people have more trouble inflicting violence on other people than taking it.


zarkov01 said...

"If you look at the history of fighting, you find that primitive people are actually not very good at fighting."

This completely contradicts the evidence presented in the book "War Before Civilization." Primitive were very good at fighting and engaged in it constantly.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting observation about how generally incompetent people are at fighting. Upon thinking about it further, I would add that animals appear to be generally incompetent fighters as well, at least based on my observation of nature videos. Sure, predators are good at hunting, but when two animals of the same species fight, the action is mostly bluster and looks remarkably similar to two men bumping chests while repeating the same thing over and over again.

Anonymous said...

People become competent at anything when they are trained. Compare the amount of training for combat done by military clerks, line infantry, and special ops. It ranges in order: hardly ever to occasional to constant.

Or compare a child raised on a hippie commune with an ancient Spartan child.

Steve Hsu said...

I think Collins is interested in the "natural state" of humans -- how they are likely to be found, not how they would be after intensive training or conditioning.

Some groups or cultures (Spartans, commandos, gladiators, etc.) achieve a high level of mental and physical competence for violence, but he is saying that they are the exception, not the rule.

Anonymous said...

Two points:

First point. Violence is age dependent.

At least I think this is true. What is the correlation of age to violence? Is a 19 year old man more likely to resort to violence than a 50 year old man in the same circumstances?

More broadly, age is an often neglected factor in ideologies, philosophies, moralities, and socio-economic theories.

This neglect is weird when you think of it since all of us know that human behavior is heavily dependant on age. Desires, obligations, spiritual and bodily needs vary greatly with age. It's easy for a 70 year old to go on about the morality of sexual abstinence or a 22 year old to speak of the benefits of flexibility over stability in the job market but why should these and similar views be made into categorical truths about what is good or bad for humanity?

Second point. If there is an aversion to violence, then technology may make humans more violent.

The aversion is an animal reaction closely tied to senses that bypass reason. It's easier to push a button and obliterate a village with a missile, then to go in and slaughter your fellow human beings face-to-face. First, you don't get the feelings of revulsion from viewing the carnage when you just push a button. Second, your safety is much more assured when you are far away.

Unknown said...

I second the "War Before Civilization" recommendation. I think there's a difference between "fighting" - equally skilled and motivated warriors facing off against each other, and a simple massacre (often of an outgroup) against surprised and unresisting people. Fighting is indeed hard, but massacring is easy. Just look at the Rwandan genocide - the killers were completely untrained, worked low-tech, hand-to-hand and face-to-face, yet managed to kill hundreds of thousands in weeks.

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