• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 09th October, 2008

The trouble is that violence works

Intriguing similarities between aggression among individuals and between countries are ruminated upon by Gerald R. Patterson, co-founder of the Oregon Social Learning Center in a recent article in Perspectives On Psychological Science. He reviews data from his own career of research into individual violence and aggression and also looks at the much smaller and younger body of work on the science of war. Some children learn that antisocial behavior works at home. Their parents back down when they cry and complain, thus rewarding negative behavior. The same children tend not to earn much praise when they behave well and they also see their parents acting aggressively. In short, they learn that bad behavior pays off at home. And when they bring their bad behavior to school, the well-behaved kids generally reject them, leaving them to the company of other antisocial children who, in turn, reinforce each other’s bad behavior until some of them become violent.Nations likewise pursue war because it tends to work, Patterson reasons. Such data as exists suggests that the countries that do a fairly good job planning for war and then initiate it, often win. Countries must convince soldiers to commit violence on their behalf. Just as a child is “trained” to be aggressive by his caregivers and peers, so a soldier is trained by his superiors in hundreds of practice trials before he goes to the battlefield. Soldiers’ willingness to kill, according to Patterson’s evidence, also seems to be related to their dedication to their brothers- and sisters-in-arms.The implication is that if you can somehow make peacefulness pay and train both individuals and nations to behave well, you might really be onto something. Patterson notes several studies that show that when parents start consistently punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior, children tend to respond. He makes an equally modest political proposal. Perhaps if citizens (who elect those who lead us into war) knew the exact costs – in terms of direct military costs, pensions, disability payments, and, of course, causalities – they may decide that war does not, in fact, pay and elect different types of leaders. Perhaps.• Summary of “A Comparison of Models for Interstate Wars and for Individual Violence” in Perspectives On Psychological Science by Gerald Patterson, 2008, Volume 3, Issue 3, p. 203 –223.

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