Most people are not violent people. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes very little sense for a species to kill members of it's own species. Soldiers in war have to be trained out of their natural impulse not to fire weapons. For the vast majority of people, aggression is a last resort and I'm guessing that most readers have anecdotal evidence of this as rarely do everyday disagreements escalate into physical or even direct verbal attacks. It's usually not worth the risk and stress to our systems.
There is lots of psychological research on how to reduce these inhibitions (e.g. dehumanization, Milgram's obedience studies), but there is little research (feel free to let me know if I'm wrong about this and I'll edit this) on the positive pressures towards aggression. Among the ideas I am familiar with are Sherif's classic studies on competition for limited resources, which are echoed in Robert Wrights's ideas about zero-sum competitions leading to conflict. However, competition itself is just a circumstance and it doesn't necessarily get at the psychological mechanism for group level aggression. For example, people may compete because they covet a particular resource or they may compete because they need that resource to survive.
A couple years ago, I hypothesized that individuals are moved to aggression because of an excess of moral principle, rather than the absence of moral principle. In the context of the health care reform debate, this may mean harming others "for the greater good", which could be defined as saving unborn fetuses, providing health care to the sick, defending the constitution, fighting for liberty, or an assortment of other moral principles which have been asserted by both sides as justifying actions that might normally be considered out of bounds. In the past few days, we have seen gun threats, windows broken, the elderly disrespected, and slurs and spit hurled at politicians. These incidences of crossing boundaries in the name of a cause are not limited to one party as those in favor of health care have harassed Bart Stupak and tried to have Joe Lieberman's wife fired. No side has a monopoly on the ugliness.
I don't have data that speaks directly to this question, but I do have this graph to consider. At the time that I started thinking about what I call 'hypermoralism', I created a small educational website that I thought I'd use to gather some exploratory data as I thought about these issues. The website is still in beta but the results of the initial survey are interesting. I asked people to think of a group that committed violence against civilians (e.g. 30% picked the Nazis) and think of the motivations behind that violence. I then asked people to think of reasons why, in an extreme case, they themselves might endorse violence against civilians.
As you can see in the above graph, people believe that notorious groups that kill civilians are amoral ("They were amoral, having no moral standards." or "They were seeking personal gain at the expense of others.") most of all and were willing to entertain the idea that they were hypermoral ("They were killing people who belong to a specific group to avenge a past injustice committed by other members of that group.") as that value was still close to the midpoint of the scale. Survival ("They were killing people because they themselves would be killed if they did not.") was a distant third motivation.
In contrast, when people considered when they would potentially resort to violence against civilians, survival (of both the individual and the family, which loaded on the same factor in a factor analysis) was the prime potential motivator. Unfortunately, for my hypothesis, moral reasons were deemed no more likely than non-moral reasons for individuals, but I still think there is something to be learned.
Clearly, these scenarios are not directly comparable as the average respondent is likely actually different than the average Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge. It's not just a matter of perception. But if we believe in the vast amount of research on the fundamental attribution error, which shows that we underestimate situational pressure when others do bad things, there likely is some amount of attribution error occurring in this instance. It seems likely that many individuals within these notorious groups actually did feel some survival motivation that spurred their actions. For example, Hitler was quite poor, though clearly his actions went way beyond mere survival.
In the health care reform debate, it seems that a precursor to the ugliness is indeed couching the debate in terms of a life or death struggle for survival, justifying questionable behavior. Is America hanging by a thread? Then I suppose it's worth taking extreme measures to save it. Are people dying every day that reform isn't enacted? Then I suppose a few harassing calls to a congressman's home are a small price to pay.
Politics in America can often be a zero-sum game and it is inevitable that passions will be inflamed on both sides. Liberals may have 'won' this vote, but we all lose when the debate gets too ugly and liberals are just as guilty of exaggeration when things don't go their way. Indeed, I just received an email asking for help to "stop big corporations from taking over our democracy", a reference to a recent Supreme Court decision which conservatives "won". Such rhetorical devices may be useful, but we should all guard against where such exaggeration inevitably leads....ugliness.
Recently, one of the grad students in my department gave a brownbag talk about the relationship between fear and aggression. On the one hand, one might expect fear to lead to aggression as one perceives threat to a greater extent and responds accordingly. On the other hand, fear is associated with withdrawal and so we may expect those who are naturally fearful to avoid aggressive actions, such as war.
I analyzed data on our support for war and peace measure (e.g. "War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict" - Van der Linden et. al 2008) as well as a measure of trait anxiety (e.g. how accurately "get stressed out easily" describes you - from the IPPI BIS/BAS scale). Unfortunately, the analysis I ran isn't particularly conclusive, but part of science is hopefully sharing both conclusive and inconclusive results so that others can build on it. There is a small significant negative correlation (r=-.166, p<.001) between trait anxiety and support for war. From the below graph, this relationship appears strongest in moderates (perhaps because they have made up their minds less about war/peace), but is consistent across groups except libertarians.
The straight lines above are linear relationships and the curvy lines are if we allow SPSS to fit a curvy line to the data. There is a semi-consistent result, but the slopes certainly aren't dramatic. I also ran the analysis for Big 5 Neuroticism and the correlation between that and support for war was even smaller (r=-.052) though still negative and significant (p=.004 since there were 3,041 participants vs. 604 in the above graph).
The take home message? I would say that it seems likely that there is an overall slightly negative relationship between general anxiety and general support for war. However, it seems likely (and consistent with previous research) that in a specifically threatening situation, the results might be quite different as the chronically stressed individual might perceive much greater threat and therefore support war in specific threatening cases to a greater degree than a less anxious individual. I hope to have more to report on this in the future as to what these cases look like and I'd welcome any comments pointing to other relevant research as it's something I'm learning about.
- Ravi Iyer