Entries Tagged "violence"

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Fear and Anxiety

More psychological research on our reaction to terrorism and mass violence:

The researchers collected posts on Twitter made in response to the 2012 shooting attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. They looked at tweets about the school shooting over a five-and-a-half-month period to see whether people used different language in connection with the event depending on how geographically close they were to Newtown, or how much time had elapsed since the tragedy. The analysis showed that the further away people were from the tragedy in either space or time, the less they used words related to sadness (loss, grieve, mourn), suggesting that feelings of sorrow waned with growing psychological distance. But words related to anxiety (crazy, fearful, scared) showed the opposite pattern, increasing in frequency as people gained distance in either time or space from the tragic events. For example, within the first week of the shootings, words expressing sadness accounted for 1.69 percent of all words used in tweets about the event; about five months later, these had dwindled to 0.62 percent. In contrast, anxiety-related words went up from 0.27 percent to 0.62 percent over the same time.

Why does psychological distance mute sadness but incubate anxiety? The authors point out that as people feel more remote from an event, they shift from thinking of it in very concrete terms to more abstract ones, a pattern that has been shown in a number of previous studies. Concrete thoughts highlight the individual lives affected and the horrific details of the tragedy. (Images have >particular power to make us feel the loss of individuals in a mass tragedy.) But when people think about the event abstractly, they’re more apt to focus on its underlying causes, which is anxiety inducing if the cause is seen as arising from an unresolved issue.

This is related.

Posted on February 16, 2016 at 6:27 AMView Comments

Cognitive Biases About Violence as a Negotiating Tactic

Interesting paper: Max Abrahms, “The Credibility Paradox: Violence as a Double-Edged Sword in International Politics,” International Studies Quarterly, 2013:

Abstract: Implicit in the rationalist literature on bargaining over the last half-century is the political utility of violence. Given our anarchical international system populated with egoistic actors, violence is thought to promote concessions by lending credibility to their threats. From the vantage of bargaining theory, then, empirical research on terrorism poses a puzzle. For non-state actors, terrorism signals a credible threat in comparison to less extreme tactical alternatives. In recent years, however, a spate of studies across disciplines and methodologies has nonetheless found that neither escalating to terrorism nor with terrorism encourages government concessions. In fact, perpetrating terrorist acts reportedly lowers the likelihood of government compliance, particularly as the civilian casualties rise. The apparent tendency for this extreme form of violence to impede concessions challenges the external validity of bargaining theory, as traditionally understood. In this study, I propose and test an important psychological refinement to the standard rationalist narrative. Via an experiment on a national sample of adults, I find evidence of a newfound cognitive heuristic undermining the coercive logic of escalation enshrined in bargaining theory. Due to this oversight, mainstream bargaining theory overestimates the political utility of violence, particularly as an instrument of coercion.

Posted on October 25, 2013 at 6:30 AMView Comments

Violence as a Source of Trust in Criminal Societies

This is interesting:

If I know that you have committed a violent act, and you know that I have committed a violent act, we each have information on each other that we might threaten to use if relations go sour (Schelling notes that one of the most valuable rights in business relations is the right to be sued — this is a functional equivalent).

Abstract of original paper; full paper is behind a paywall.

Posted on July 22, 2013 at 6:36 AMView Comments

Violence as a Contagious Disease

This is fascinating:

Intuitively we understand that people surrounded by violence are more likely to be violent themselves. This isn’t just some nebulous phenomenon, argue Slutkin and his colleagues, but a dynamic that can be rigorously quantified and understood.

According to their theory, exposure to violence is conceptually similar to exposure to, say, cholera or tuberculosis. Acts of violence are the germs. Instead of wracking intestines or lungs, they lodge in the brain. When people, in particular children and young adults whose brains are extremely plastic, repeatedly experience or witness violence, their neurological function is altered.

Cognitive pathways involving anger are more easily activated. Victimized people also interpret reality through perceptual filters in which violence seems normal and threats are enhanced. People in this state of mind are more likely to behave violently. Instead of through a cough, the disease spreads through fights, rapes, killings, suicides, perhaps even media, the researchers argue.


Not everybody becomes infected, of course. As with an infectious disease, circumstance is key. Social circumstance, especially individual or community isolation ­– people who feel there’s no way out for them, or disconnected from social norms ­– is what ultimately allows violence to spread readily, just as water sources fouled by sewage exacerbate cholera outbreaks.

At a macroscopic population level, these interactions produce geographic patterns of violence that sometimes resemble maps of disease epidemics. There are clusters, hotspots, epicenters. Isolated acts of violence are followed by others, which are followed by still more, and so on.

There are telltale incidence patterns formed as an initial wave of cases recedes, then is followed by successive waves that result from infected individuals reaching new, susceptible populations. “The epidemiology of this is very clear when you look at the math,” said Slutkin. “The density maps of shootings in Kansas City or New York or Detroit look like cholera case maps from Bangladesh.”

I am reminded of this paper on the effects of bystanders on escalating and de-escalating potentially violent situations.

Posted on January 28, 2013 at 6:07 AMView Comments

"Raise the Crime Rate"

I read this a couple of months ago, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. It’s definitely one of the most thought-provoking essays I’ve read this year.

According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years. In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City. In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.

When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent. Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the country was more dangerous in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, than in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble. What’s strange is that crime has continued to fall during the recession. On May 23, in what has become an annual ritual, the New York Times celebrated the latest such finding: in 2010, as America’s army of unemployed grew to 14 million, violent crime fell for the fourth year in a row, sinking to a level not seen since the early ’70s. This seemed odd. Crime and unemployment were supposed to rise in tandem­progressives have been harping on this point for centuries. Where had all the criminals gone?

Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States — it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie — but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

The author argues that the only moral thing for the U.S. to do is to accept a slight rise in the crime rate while vastly reducing the number of people incarcerated.

While I might not agree with his conclusion — as I said above, I’m not sure whether I do or I don’t — it’s very much the sort of trade-off I talk about in Liars and Outliers. And Steven Pinker has an extensive argument about violent crime in modern society that he makes in The Better Angels of our Nature.

Posted on April 11, 2012 at 1:25 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.