T Nation

Are We All Capable of Violence? (BBC News)



It was one of the thorniest questions of the 20th Century and it remains a conundrum today. Are all "ordinary" people potentially violent?

The human race is both appalled and fascinated by violence. Man's aggression spans the globe - from terrorist attacks to guerrilla wars to gang-related crime.

It is everywhere, and it binds all nations and races together. But where does it begin? Do we learn it or is it something instinctive?

Most of us think of ourselves as calm and peaceful people.

We're brought up to try and resolve all conflict peaceably and tend to think that violence is something that "other" people commit, not ourselves. But is it?

Is it possible that you, or your mother or daughter or son, could ever be driven to commit a dreadful crime? Do we have that level of violence in ourselves?

The answer is yes.

Contrary to popular belief, we are born violent. Until the age of three, our impulses run riot. There is no stopping the urges which come from the emotional centre in our brains.

But as we grow up, we start to develop the part of the brain that allows us to control our aggression - the pre-frontal cortex. Yet crucially, how well this control mechanism works depends on our experiences.

Festival of violence
Being taught to share and take turns rather than resolve conflict with violence actually changes the physical structure of the brain and therefore makes us less aggressive.

But trying to resolve conflict peaceably is not something all cultures subscribe to. In the Bolivian Andes, one tribe settles disputes which arise over the year in an annual festival of violence, known as the Tinku.

Their warrior tradition dictates that men, women and even children should learn to fight and deaths are not unheard of.

Neuroscientist Maria Couppis argues that their brains are different from the norm because they were socialised to resolve conflicts this way.

This suggests that although we are all born with a violent potential, our upbringing and the environment play a key part in creating violence controls in our brain.

Not only are we born violent, we are also chemically programmed to love it. Inside the brain a pleasure-inducing chemical called dopamine is released when we fight.

Dopamine informs the brain that we're having a good time. But the problem doesn't stop there - the rush we get from dopamine can get us physically addicted to violence. The more we have it, the more we want it.

Primeval pleasure
Danny Brown, a former hooligan, knows better than most just how far one can go to get this "hit". He was sent to prison for stabbing a rival fan but even that didn't stop him. The rush of hooliganism was too strong to resist.

"I was never into drinking or drugs. Fighting was my heroin."

Fighting is a primeval pleasure controlled by the frontal part of the brain. But how easy is it for us to lose control? Crimes of passion are an everyday occurrence and perpetrators often don't know what came over them. How is this explained? What is it that drives them to lose it?

Neuro-psychology expert Prof Charles Golden says we can all easily lose control and commit an extreme act of violence. All we need is for there to be a breakdown in the pre-frontal cortex and that can be triggered by anything from a car accident or repeated blows to the head in a game of rugby.

In fact, physical injury is not the only way to cause the cortex to shut down. Depression, alcohol abuse, drugs, lack of sleep and even the natural ageing process can all injure our violence controls.

Control mechanisms
"One of my patients is a priest," says Prof Golden. "He spent all his life helping people and one day he had a car accident. In the hospital, the doctors sent him home saying he was completely fine.

"For a month he didn't notice anything was wrong. But then he had a fight with his wife and completely lost it. He very nearly killed her. So much so that she left him straight away.

"The scary thing is that in your everyday life you just don't notice there's anything wrong. It's only when your violent impulses are triggered that you realise you are out of control. But by then it's probably too late."

It's hard to accept that we're born violent, that we enjoy it, and that all our control mechanisms can easily be broken.

But if we think about why most people get killed, it isn't because of a crime of passion or a sudden rush of violence - it is because of war and genocide. It is because someone deliberately decided to kill another person.

Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier in the Sudan, has personal experience of how a traumatic experience can lead you to deliberately want to kill another human being.

He had a healthy and happy childhood until one day war tore his hopes for a normal life. His mother disappeared, his village was burnt down and he lost everything he had.

Justified aggression
He became convinced that the people who did this to him deserved to die, and joined the rebel army. With them, he killed and tortured many people.

He is now trying to re-build his life and share with the world the idea that violence only creates more violence.

Emmanuel Jal's experience is extreme. But how extreme does a situation need to be for you or I to be convinced that violence is justified against another person?

Most of us can imagine that if someone harmed our children or loved ones, we might engage in violence. But could we ever harm someone who hasn't caused us any harm, merely because of an idea or ideology?

The much-cited Milgram experiment of 1961 suggests the answer might be yes. Members of the public were asked to give a shock to a "volunteer" every time they got an answer from a multiple questions test wrong. The shocks were to be increased incrementally, up until the lethal 450v shock.

What the participants didn't know was that the "volunteer" was acting and hadn't been receiving shocks. But still two-thirds were prepared to deliver the "fatal" 450v shock because of the supervision of a white-coated authority figure.

The experiment has often been used as the proof that we are all capable of violence within a certain framework. We struggle to accept this, but the science seems to suggest we are wrong.


copy & paste awesomeness!!1!


Yeah. I'd be interested in getting peoples thoughts on it and no one ever reads links.


Nobody reads 18 paragraphs either. At least I don't!

Answer to question in topic: Yes.


I doubt most will read that entire essay either, but anyone who thinks "ordinary humans" are not capable of violence will be in for a surprise should all of the electricity suddenly be cut off and we are suddenly left to fend for ourselves with no grocery stores or other conveniences.

It is easy to pretend you are sophisticated as long as you can hide behind a structured society. People don't fight anymore, they sue each other...or call the police. You take away these structures and all you are left with is survival instinct.

The real question isn't whether humans are capable of violence. The real question is how many of these softer new era humans would survive 10 minutes should the lights go out and their cell phones stop working.


I personally hate it when, in a country addicted to everything from caffeine to anti-depressants, the release of dopamine is related to hardcore drug use.

You can get a euphoric feeling from exercise as well producing the same effect.

We respond that way to the fight or flight response, not necessarily to violence itself since sex creates the same chemical release.


Unlike JGerman, my attention span lasts longer than about 5 seconds and vocabulary stretches past 247 words (nttawwt).

I read the whole thing. I've never had a physically or mentally traumatic experience, and was raised in the United States and consider myself a fairly healthy, functioning, productive member of society. I personally think that the majority of violence committed in this country against another human being is BECAUSE of ideologies (such as inner city gangs committing random acts of violence against civilians as initiation rights, or "recruits" being jumped into a gang. Violence committed against rival gang members over "turf" or because they are wearing opposing "colors").

I think ideologies trigger preemptive strikes which could escalate the situation or diffuse it if executed strategically and properly.

I can't speak for everyone, but I'm pretty sure the majority of people on this site would lean towards we are all capable of violence. Some more than other, but I'd have to say that we're all capable of kicking some ass (or trying to) on some level.


oh JGerman ... just busting your chops, homie. No need to get medieval on my ass.


Please. Have you seen the average house wife at a red tag sale where the last pair of shoes she wants is about to get snatched up by her neighbor she can't stand?

People raised with a structured set of values are simply less likely to give in to impulses, mostly because they recognize repercussions to their actions exist and are afraid of them.

If there were no socially dictated repercussions, you can bet there would be more violence.

The couple making six figures a year will no doubt watch their actions in society more than someone raised in poverty who sees no way out of that situation. One has something to lose. The other perceives themselves as having much less or nothing at all to lose.


We could always reference the "Trading Places" bet...Louis Winthrop almost strangled Billy Valentine for appearing to steal the structure you were talking about earlier...

And I used to work at a Dept. Store as "Loss Prevention" ... so yes I have seen the average fat house wife at a sale. Vicious.




Yup, when you got a job, home, family dependent on you, much less likely to give in to an impulse to bash someone's head in. Low frustration tolerance is a big factor when it comes to violence. I tend to experience this when driving and have to remind myself what I've got to lose.



Absolutely yes. You'd be shocked at the thoughts that can enter your head when things get fucked up enough.


I'm wondering what pussy hippie this article is actually going to surprise.


This reminded me of people calling Bush an ideologue. Just saying...


um... where's my post?

[edit] Nevermind


Anyone is capable of violence... I used to throw a punch first and act questions later.... spend enough time dealing with the reprocusions of your actions and you learn to think first... that said, ya, people with more to loss usually think first, to a point, after a while (think really rich people) and they begin to think no one can touch them and get stupid... I have had more rich aholes (rich middle age women with cell phones are the worst) mess with me over stupid parking lot spots and lines at airports / starbucks than I have ever had problems with everyone else combined...


I asked a real estate agent friend of mine when is a good time to buy considering the economy and all. His response was, "When there is blood in the street." He is right. When survival becomes an issue, you can trust and believe that people will put down their briefcase and pick up a billy club.


As far as I read if you push a house wife or her daughter to commit a terrible crime, it probably is self defense or justifiable homicide


That's kind of funny, when I was typing it I was thinking of Bush.