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Notion That Violence Is Animalistic Reduces Support for War

• September 14, 2009 • 8:00 PM

Does acting violently make us animals? A study finds that idea reduces right-wingers’ support for war.

It has long been suggested that thinking of one’s enemies as subhuman makes it easier to commit violence against them. A new psychological study turns that troubling truism on its side.

It suggests one way to curb violent behavior against outsiders — including support for war — might be to emphasize the idea that violence is an expression of instincts we share with our fellow animals. This concept appears to dampen the gung-ho spirit of aggressive militarists.

“These data suggest that by portraying violence as something instinctual and creaturely, it may be possible to reduce intergroup hostility and aggression among individuals who tend to be more dispositionally aggressive,” psychologist Matt Motyl of the University of Virginia writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In short, it appears that thinking of the “bad guys” as vermin increases support for violent action, while thinking of ourselves in such terms does quite the opposite.

The 136 undergraduates participating in Motyl’s experiment began by completing a questionnaire designed to measure the degree to which they agree with the beliefs of right-wing authoritarianism. Half were then asked to think about their own deaths, while the other half contemplated the unpleasant but non-lethal condition of severe dental pain.

The participants then read one of two statements about human violence. The first stated that “the motivations behind violence are really the same instincts that drive violent behavior among all animals.” The second came to the opposite conclusion, insisting that “human acts of violence are unique,” because they are based on specific motivations, “as opposed to animals, who just lash out.”

They completed the experiment by filling out an 11-item questionnaire in which they revealed the degree to which they support using military force in response to threatening scenarios overseas.

Not surprisingly, those who scored high on the right-wing authoritarian scale also displayed the highest level of support for military action. But here’s where things get interesting: When reminded of their mortality (by being asked to think about death) and primed to think of violence as animal-like behavior, these hawkish individuals “showed no more support for military action” than those on the low end of the right-wing authoritarianism scale.

Although right-wing authoritarians “typically show strong in-group bias and support for violence against out-groups, their heightened need to view themselves as non-animals makes them reticent to demonstrate violence when it is linked to animality,” Motyl concludes.

It should be noted that 104 of the 136 participants in the test were women. Before generalizing these results too widely, one would like to see them duplicated with a mostly male sample, preferably one from outside the walls of academia.

Nevertheless, these are hopeful findings for those looking for ways to inspire peaceful resolutions to problems. Motyl notes that they add to “a growing literature demonstrating that increased hostility is not an inevitable response to death reminders.”

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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