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The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker - 3 Big Ideas

What causes violence, what is the current state of violence, should we be worried, and is there really good in us? Stay tuned for all of those answers and more...


Hey everybody, you're here to improve your life and your business through books with us and this week's book is:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.

Combining the study of people, the systems we use and the way we think, Steven Pinker wraps up this intellectual and comprehensive package and slaps the sticker "Violence" on it.

You get a huge history lesson, a crash course in psychology, anthropology, philosophy and social science -- and your IQ goes up 20 points. (I'm up to 85)

So, what are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. Violence (History and Progress)

What a good morning.

You roll out of bed and check the itinerary.

If you're in the year 1500, you'll be seeing a public torture of a small crime thief.

If it's 1600, you'll be watching an alleged witch burn.

1700, dawning your gear to go to war, the most honorable thing you can do.

1800, on the way to a duel because someone challenged your honor

1900, packing the kids up for the public hanging

But in the 2000s, you'll be on your way to a picnic.

Contrary to what may be popular belief, violence has taken a major hit.

We may have the news telling us otherwise 24/7. But they make their living on showing violence -- and as long as there is enough going on in their giant sample size to fill their segments, you may be swayed into thinking violence is as strong as ever, due to seeing it so often.

But things have changed a lot. The biggest form of violence has always been war - and we hate war now.  We hate torture and public punishment.

But war used to be the norm, celebrated, honorable. Killing and hurting was common-place and part of the entertainment of the day.

From big crowds watching gladiator fights to giant gatherings around the town center to watch public tortures to mass killings in war or between different groups.

And their old systems of state and religion helped to prop up these violent ways of thinking and behaving - and not inadvertently or by accident, but by design.

Back then there was little to get in the way of all of our emotional negatives that have their roots in our animalistic evolution -- like: tribalism, in-group out-group, our inflated self-assessments and our desire for revenge.

But our systems, the systems of today: law, democracy, commerce, national peace groups, and the resulting freedom, morality and etiquette, keep our emotional impulses in check, lay out a series of norms and taboos and leave us open to thinking, reasoning and sympathizing.

We are a less violent society today - but - there is a reason why the human animal can be so savage. And understanding this may give us reason to pause before we pat ourselves on the back for all of our progress.

There is just a framework keeping us in our non-violent, understanding, loving and enlightened ways of being. So, believe you me, the psychology for violence is still an integrated and scary part of our emotional composition, that if wasn't held at bay by modernity, would be just as much a part of life as it used to be.

2. The Bad

We're no angels.

I killed a guy just yesterday.

We see visions of our arch nemesis being injured, usually by us, we enjoy watching vigilante justice in movies, and we won't watch a show unless there's a promise of blood.

Our psychology is riddled with violence supporting mechanisms, as well as the 5 motivations for being violent.

1. Predatory violence, where the violence has a goal behind it. It can be killing for money or killing to eat.

It's not personal, it's not entertainment, it's business.

2. Dominance. Where the violence is fueled by ego.

It's killing to prove something - but not always. Dominance violence, in tribal situations, usually happens between tribes, as a preventative measure. To keep the other side from getting an upper hand. They strike before the other side can strike.

Just like in the office space, this sort of fear driven violence is what sabotage is fueled by.

3. Revenge. This time it's personal.

Revenge works -- in a vacuum. They did some studies that showed that revenge works well as a deterrent for future wrongings. Someone does you wrong, you return the favor, and they are less likely to do you wrong again.

But there's a fatal flaw to reality that turns revenge into a spiral a woe and wrongdoing.

Quote, "People consider the harms they inflict to be justified and forgettable, and the harms they suffer to be unprovoked and grievous," end quote.

According to the perpetrator of the wrong-doing, they were acting in a reasonable way and did what anyone would have in that situation, it's not a serious issue, it should be easy to get over and they will be fine.

But according to the victim, the torment started far earlier than this instance, the perps actions were deliberate and senseless. "They're a sadist who loves to see me suffer," they say, "and I was completely innocent."

This, in these cases, is the self-bias at work. The engine that keeps us thinking that we are special.

It white-washes our wrong doings and plays up our victimization, leading to an ever escalating cycle of one-upmanship violence, leading to feuds of Montague and Capulet proportions, that ultimately end in murder.

4. Sadism. Getting enjoyment from seeing others suffering.

Not many are born with sadism a part of their makeup. Most people are naturally empathetic, feeling the feelings of others and wanting to help.

But with exposure and practice, as you got pretty often in the olden days, you could go from empathetic, to indifferent, to sadistic. Going from hurting when you see someone else stub their toe-- to spreading legos on floors wherever you go.

And finally, #5. Ideology. The big killer.

The crusades, the 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, some of the most disturbing things to happen to people were all cooked up on the coals of ideology.

When ideology leads to striving for an idealistic solution through whatever means necessary, it becomes a route to violence.

Not to mention the studies that showed people pretend to believe something if they think the other people around them believe it and even go as far as to get mad at others for not believing it... even if they still don't believe it!

Thus, is the logic of group think, that, when combined with the perils of ideology, lead to all of our favorite tragedies.

Predation, dominance, revenge, sadism and ideology. These are the motives for violence that are always hiding under the rocks throughout our brains.

3. The Good

But we're not all barbaric, savage, violence mongers, like Maddi.

The rest of us, have some good in us.

Plenty of good, that's helped and supported by our modern infrastructure as well as our inborn desire for good.

What do I mean by infrastructure?

There are four different systems that guide us along the path of declining violence.

Starting with:

#1. The law. Which Steven Pinker calls the leviathan, which is the smart way of saying it. When the law is done right, when it's consistent and respected, it is able to hold a punishment above the heads of those who wish to commit violence and is a deterrent as well as a way to keep repeat offenders from continuing to repeat offend. Though our justice system isn't perfect, far from it, that's a different topic for another show, it is still better than most and has a big part to play in our decreased rates of violence.

#2. Democracy.

In in autocracy, when a government is run by a dictator or an elite few, they have reason to start wars. The spoils go to the victors and the victors are the elite few. But in a democracy, the people are in charge and gain far less from invading and conquering and are usually much more defensive than aggressive. Democracy doesn't play as well into the predatory and dominance motives as autocracies do.

#3. Commerce

Starting early with bartering and leading into world scale commerce, trading makes life more efficient and easier, so it's the obvious choice. When trade is the obvious choice, people are incentivised to have people like them, otherwise they may not trade with them. No longer are you preemptively striking to get and keep resources, now you are baking pies and smiling -- motivated and protected by the standards of commerce.

#4. Intergovernmental relationships

When governments are talking to one another, it makes it both easier to see the other's perspective and harder to look at them from across the table and still send the troops.

It creates a more open discussion among governments, leaders and nations and gives these entities more options in solving their problems, other than command and conquer.

These four modern systems, the law, democracy, commerce and intergovernmental relationships combined, opened up more opportunities -- and people with more opportunities, were afforded the options of planning ahead, learning to control their impulses and thinking about other peoples' perspectives, which are all prerequisites of a less violent society.

And, the reason why we can find systems that help to support our inborn desire for good, is because we actually do have an inborn desire for good. We humans, prefer peace, anywhere where it is possible.

There are four explanations for why we humans prefer peace, starting with my favorite:

#1. Women. Men, in general, are the violent ones. Women civilize men. Steven Pinker cites a plethora of examples of when and how women would sway huge swaths of a population, through marriage and the resulting non-violent family men and the general female rationale of empathy, and suddenly drop the rates of violence.

According to the statistics, societies that empower their women have less violence, quote, "we don't know what causes what, but biology and history suggest that all else being equal, a world in which women have more influence will be a world with fewer wars."

#2. Norms and Taboos.

Which is really to say morality. But morality is what leads to the norms and taboos, which are the foot soldiers of social progress.

People in most circles don't lash out and punch people in the face. Not because they don't want to, but because in their circle, that's a taboo.

In general, taboos are tied up to moral issues as to how to treat people. Torture has become a taboo, hitting women has become a taboo, and giving people wedgies is far from the norm, and all for the sake of moral progress and how you are expected to interact with other people.

#3. The expansion of the circle of sympathy.

We're caring more and more about more people. As more opportunities are afforded to us, as we get more comfortable, we can spend less time worrying about ourselves and more time sympathizing with others and putting ourselves in their shoes.

Our in-group is ever expanding, aimed toward a united population... which may be far away, but at least seems to be the direction we're pointed towards.

#4. The escalator of reason

Literacy, cosmopolitanism and education.

People are becoming more reasonable, valuing facts and reason over dogma.

Once the supporting systems are set up, it's reason that can swim through the rest of the diminishing returns. Thinking critically about conscious experience, from one person to another, and optimizing it for everyone. It is driving us to a less and less violent society and world.

So see, we may have been violent for a long time. But under the right circumstances when allowed the option for peace and when not challenged for resources or survival, and when aided by women, norms and taboos, the expansion of the circle of sympathy and the escalator of reason, you can drop your sword and shield, slide the clip out of your pistol, unhook your grenade belt, unrev your gatling gun, unstrap your bazooka, close your napalm box, sheath your shotgun, put away your ammo vest, wash off the poison darts and ruminate on existence and the best life for everyone.


We may be in violent times, but that's only compared to a perfect, violence-free society. Violence used to be a part of life, now it's only on the news.

There are 5 motives for violence: For something we want, to keep the upper hand, for payback, for pleasure or because we think our way of doing things is better.

Thanks to our psychology, with the right bed frame, covers, pillows and mattress, the bed we make as a society can be a pretty good, nonviolent bed to sleep in.

These are scary times, nuclear catastrophe is an option, places we never expected are being attacked by certain ideological followings, and we're being force fed assaults, kidnappings, and murders by our best friend the news.

But I think Steven Pinker wrote this book to give us hope for the future, by seeing how far we have come. To give us hope for the future of violence, by seeing how we seem to be sliding to the bottom of violence hill, planing out to a peaceful society.

He, Steven Pinker, wrote this 1M page book and I summarized it. If you want to know more or you disagree with anything, let me know with a comment, we can have a discussion (Maddi fist pound in hand palm.) or read the book.

Overall, this book can be slow at times, but it is so worth it if you are looking to expand your perspective, in many many ways.

Reading this big ol' book took so long to read that it became a break for us, which became a vacation, which turned into a hiatus... but we're back in action! (chik chik) and you'll see us next week. Which, speaking of,

If you're not subscribed to Average Optimized, and you like what we're doing, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss next week's video, thanks for watching with us and--

we'll see you next week!


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