The decline of violence
Every day it seems like there’s something terrible in the news - a report of yet another horrific murder or crime - and it's easy to think that the modern world is getting worse, or at least not getting any better.
However, the story is a bit different when we examine the historical data. Many sources suggest that actually the world has been steadily getting better in a number of ways. For example, violent deaths of all kinds have declined from around 500 per 100,000 people per year in prestate societies to around 50 per 100,000 in the Middle Ages. Today, the numbers are down to 6-8 per 100,000 worldwide. Attitudes to slavery, rape, corporal punishment, domestic abuse, and racial hate crimes have all, rightfully, shifted towards an increasing consensus of their unacceptability.
Why has violence declined?
Steven Pinker argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that we’re witnessing a massive decline of all forms of violence in all aspects of life such as war, criminal punishment, parent-child relationships, and interpersonal relationships. Pinker outlines five key factors that have driven the declines in violence:
The rise of monopolies on the legitimate use of force
The spread of commerce and interdependence through trade
Increasing respect for the interest and values of, historically oppressed, women
The role of mobility, literacy, and mass media in shaping an internationalist outlook
The success of a scientific and rational outlook on the world
Let’s take a look at one of these factors. How did commerce decrease violence? Pinker argues that during the Middle Ages, money and trade began to facilitate more contact between separated and distant peoples. Mutually beneficial trade meant that foreigners became more valuable alive rather than dead, and beneficial interaction with other peoples meant that they were less likely to become demonised or dehumanised.
How does this affect the way you view the world?
So if violence is really going down, why do we still see the world as such a dangerous place? The availability heuristic can partly explain our irrational fear. With the availability heuristic, we tend to judge the probability of some event occurring based on how easily it can come to mind. Since the news disproportionately reports on bad things happening (that's what sells newspapers!), we often overestimate how common these rare bad events are because they are fresh in our memory.
Also check out:
Driving is much deadlier than terrorism - why isn’t it scarier? (Pacific Standard Magazine)
The best stats you’ve ever seen, Hans Rosling (video)