We learn about human possibility from anthropology research.
- Peaceful social systems appear to share particular characteristics, including non-warring values, norms, myths, rituals, and symbols.
- Values, norms, and myths are important for the type of society we create.
- The United States has a history of (and continues to maintain) values of violence.
The recurring meme purveyed by some scholars and media are that all societies war with other societies. A just-published study suggests otherwise.
Using data from 186 societies ethnographically described in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, Douglas Fry and colleagues (2021) found through hand-coding and machine learning the characteristics that distinguished 16 peaceful social systems from a random sample of 30 non-peaceful ones. Peaceful systems scored higher than the comparison group on:
- Overarching common identity
- Positive social interconnectedness
- Peace leadership
- Non-warring values and norms
- Non-warring myths, rituals, and symbols
The most important of these appeared to be non-warring values and norms, with non-warring myths, rituals, and symbols a close second. Non-warring norms and values that peaceful systems display include, for example, that aggression is immoral, that nonviolence is normal human behavior, and that consensus and inclusion are imperative.
I am reminded of Fry’s (2006) earlier account of the Ifaluk, a Micronesian people whose land had been used for U.S. military maneuvers during World War II. As a token of its appreciation, the military invited the Ifaluk to see American movies. They were shown a movie containing a murder, which reportedly shocked the Ifaluk because they would never treat a person that way.
The first semester I used Fry’s book The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions About War and Violence, I had students only read the final summary chapter. They were not convinced. So after that, we read the entire book, which is a compendium of cases and summary data that undresses the war-is-normal meme. By the time the students read the last chapter, they were convinced that human beings could, indeed, be peaceful and did not have a species history of war.
Why was it so hard to convince students about human peaceableness? A study that my students and I conducted pointed to a possible answer. We designed a videogame study to find out if we could prime prosociality. We had three videogame conditions created with Half-Life tools: a violent condition (kill the bandits before they kill you); a helping condition (give dying people medicine so they would not die); and a neutral condition where you needed to pick up the sacks of gold before the mice did. After playing the game, everyone was given story stems to complete with 20 thoughts, feelings, or actions by the main character. For example, “John was driving along and braked for a yellow light. The car behind him slammed into his car. What happened next?”
We expected that the violent condition would increase aggressive responses in the story completion, as prior studies had shown, and we expected the helping condition to increase prosocial responses. Both findings played out. What we did not expect was that in all conditions, aggressive responses were equally high. This puzzled us, so we added additional control conditions. To test whether just thinking of playing a videogame primed aggression, we signed up people to “play a videogame,” but had them complete the story stems before playing a videogame. Their responses were equally aggressive. We did a final control in which participants only completed the story stems. Equally aggressive scores. We speculated that the university students participating in the research were all primed for aggression from the culture in which they lived.
The U.S. has a deep history of violence, including that of slavery and Indigenous genocide (e.g., Madley, 2016), as well as of rapacious destruction of the natural world (Sale, 1990; Turner, 1994). Uncovering, facing, and healing that history are difficult tasks but may be necessary if the country is to move toward peaceful coexistence.
In contrast to the peaceful systems described above, it can be argued that the U.S. today has warring values and norms as well as warring myths, rituals, and symbols: From cowboys-vs-Indians myths and gun culture to harshness toward children (Suttie, 1935). The U.S. and allies have regularly dropped bombs in other countries throughout the last 20 years.
Many of these warring, violent norms and myths are conveyed through the media. Decades of research have found evidence of three major effects of violent television (studied primarily when it was far less violent): decreased sensitivity to victims, increased aggression, and increased belief that the world is a dangerous place. A longitudinal study of a sample 15 years after the original data gathered in 1977 showed that childhood violent television watching was associated with more aggressive attitudes and behavior in adulthood. U.S. film ratings have become loosened over the decades, with increasing violence rated more leniently. In contrast, years ago when Power Rangers became popular around the world, several countries banned it because of concerns that it was associated with greater aggression in young children.
Dave Grossman, a retired lieutenant colonel and law enforcement trainer, in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, proposed that the U.S. media has been doing what military trainers presumably had difficulty accomplishing during World War II: convincing soldiers to shoot to kill. Of course, a society’s values are conveyed by many features, including by the ideologies of groups who condone violence to meet their goals, as seen recently in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Clearly, the U.S. has some work to transform itself into a peaceful society, as Norway did. The new study shows us that it is possible to live together in peace within a society as well as with other societies. In this paper and in an interview about it, Douglas Fry concluded that peace systems can be purposefully promoted to address interwoven global crises such as the climate emergency, pandemics, mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, and massive pollution. There is no time to lose.
Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2014). An indigenous people’s history of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Eisler, R., & Fry, D.P. (2019). Nurturing our humanity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fry, D. P. (2006). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fry, D. (Ed.) (2013). War, peace and human nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Fry, D.P., Souillac, G., Liebovitch, L. et al. (2021). Societies within peace systems avoid war and build positive intergroup relationships. Humanities & Social Sciences Communication, 8, 17. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-00692-8
Gentile, D.A., & Anderson, C.A. (2006). Violent video games: The effects of youth, and public policy implications. In N.E. Dowd, D.G. Singer, & R.F. Wilson (Eds.), Handbook of culture and violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Grossman, D. (1996). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown.
Madley, B. (2016). An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Narvaez, D., Mattan, B., MacMichael, C., & Squillace, M. (2008). Kill bandits, collect gold or save the dying: the effects of playing a prosocial video game. Media Psychology Review. 1 (1). http://mprcenter.org/review/narvaez-prosocial-video-game/
Sale, K. (1990) The conquest of paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy. New York, NY: Penguin Plume.
Suttie, I. (1935). The origins of love and hate. New York, NY: The Julian Press.
Turner, F. (1994). Beyond geography: The Western spirit against the wilderness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.