February 18, 2012

Is There a Social Need for Violence?

I have a weekend class, and a group was presenting about the problem of concussions in sports...a much better/more interesting topic than I got to present on, but three times during their presentation they insinuated that there was a social need for violence.  It wasn't the type of presentation where the audience felt welcome to talk during so I wasn't sure the question would be addressed, but as they ended they had discussion questions, and they had a question framed as it is titled in this post, "Is There a Social Need for Violence?"

I addressed the under-current that ran through their presentation, and said to the same effect what I'm going to recite with better statistics in the rest of this post.

I don't think that if sports became less violent and people lost what was described as their, 'outlets for violence' that they would take to the streets looking for someone body checking someone else or start to beat up other people because there was a build up in their internal violence meter.

This isn't a caricature of the position being presented, and what may be a more common belief than expected, yet it is a belief not only wrong it's completely backward from reality. Violence tends to only beget more violence as was well stated by some oft-quoted royal doctor.

I know no better way to show this than the experiments with anger and stress management, but if you know of other ways feel free to add them to the comments. The common expression is 'blowing off some steam' and I guess that is what the people in class thought. The view that the body naturally builds up a violent steam that can be released by watching or participating in violence, to the point that if there were no other outlets underground fight clubs would pop up to satisfy base human urges.

That doesn't seem to be the case though, acting out aggression or taking part in aggressive acts tends to only make the person more vengeful; acting out aggression doesn't vent anger it amplifies it. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that effect in 1999 when it published a paper entitled, "Catharsis, Aggression, and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies?" A number of experiments were documented in this paper and their results were counter-intuitive and largely ignored by pop culture in the same way the discovery of there being no link between sugar and hyperactivity was ignored, but that's a different post.

In the first study, it was found that,

"Participants who read a procatharsis message (claiming that aggressive action is a good way to relax and reduce anger) subsequently expressed a greater desire to hit a punching bag than did participants who read an anticatharsis message. In Study 2, participants read the same messages and then actually did hit a punching bag. This exercise was followed by an opportunity to engage in laboratory aggression. Contrary to the catharsis hypothesis and to the self-fulfilling prophecy prediction, people who read the procatharsis message and then hit the punching bag were subsequently more aggressive than were people who read the anticatharsis message."

People who hit the punching bag didn't blow off steam, they built it up.

While another study in the paper that was similar went further. It compared people doing nothing to people hitting a punching bag. To get these people 'riled up' they were given a writing assignment and received comments about what they wrote telling them that it was the worst thing that the grader has ever read. Half the individuals were left alone and half the subjects were taken to use a punching bag, individually, of course.

After using the punching bag or just sitting for a period of time they were given a second test where, if they won they could blast another person with an air horn. The people were given the options of both how strong a blast they could use and the length of time they could blast the horn. The results were generally that people, "Who did hit the punching bag were significantly more aggressive than those who did not hit the punching bag." That aggression meant that people who used a punching bag to 'blow off steam' ended up blowing the air horns at a much higher volume and for a longer duration.

This is not the only study done on this topic as a good episode of Bullshit! showed where they re-created a number of previous studies. People who used punching bags are also more likely to give people more hot sauce as a punishment and fill in blanks with more violent words. For instance the blank RA_E was more likely to be filled in as RAKE for someone who just sat to themselves and RAPE to someone who used a violent outlet for their aggression. 

All this doesn't necessarily prove that there isn't some violent clock within people that needs to find an outlet, as it might have been the case that the calm people just so happened to watch a Steven Seagal movie the night before, while people who used the punching bag had an anger meter that went unchecked the night before by Exit Wounds, so there was a previous build up which is why the people wanted to also use a punching bag in the first place (two people refused to use the punching bag altogether, so they must have watched Under Siege and Under Siege 2 and had their violent meter at extra low).  

Yet, it seems pretty far-fetched that all the people who had a build up would be selected to one group and also that getting to outlet their violence on a punching bag wouldn't be enough to calm them down to a level of that of an average person. For that reason the belief that people have a need for a social outlet of violence seems to be far fetched. People don't need to outlet violence to calm down, or to take part in something violent to assure that they won't do something violent in the future.

As a side note, I ran across another interesting study that shows violence in video games may not be linked to future acts of aggression at all, as personal competitiveness was a much more accurate predictor of future aggression. It didn't matter whether a person played a violent fighting game or a racing game, the people gave out the same amount of hot sauce afterwards, but the people who were more competitive were the ones who loaded on the Franks. Who knew you could learn so much from hot sauce?

I'll end with a quote because so many Stephen J. Gould essays end that way,  

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.  - That same royal doctor 

Thanks for reading, 
-the moral skeptic 


  1. People who hit the punching bag didn't blow off steam, they built it up.

    I have read this kind of thing over and over again. I wish I could site the sources, but I did not hold onto them. Allowing anger to have its way with you makes you angry.

    The phenomenon of “seeing red,” works that way. You are angry and react to it, and soon your body and mind go into angry autopilot.

    Anger is infectious, just as laughter is, joy is, happiness can be. The closer you are to the anger, the more likely you are to be infected, and if the anger is welling up internally, the worst thing you can do is to indulge it.

    Oddly enough, sadness is the same way. It is one thing to grieve when in sorrow, rather than to suppress it, but quite another to live in sorrow, which begets more sorrow. Crying when you need to cry can be cathartic, but I think the psychological explanation would be that “withholding” and “denying” the sorrow causes a burden upon a person. Any forced lack of openness has been shown to be very burdensome, hence one of my favorite quotes: “The truth shall set you free.”

  2. Hey John...I left the sources included in the post, but I'm sure there are many more than I cited.

    I'm not sure if the maximum holds for everything either, I'm not sure that joy breeds more joy, but I do remember an experiment that had people do something creative in front of an ordered picture and recorded how many words they could come up with to describe something. Then they had a different group do the same activity in front of a picture where something that was clearly out of order and the people who were 'primed' by the out of order picture were more creative, so I think that the generalization may hold in quite a few cases.

    I'm sure you have no problem with the truth though, despite how often you satirize your point.