The exhaustive analysis in Steven Pinker’s latest book shows that we are living in the most peaceable age for thousands of years. To anyone who spends time in late-night bars, this might come as a surprise. In these temples to hedonism, spilled drinks and unwelcome gropes all too often provoke violent brawls.
Kathryn Graham and her colleagues trained 148 observers and sent them out to 118 bars in early-hours Toronto where they recorded 1,057 instances of aggression from 1,334 visits. Where the majority of psychology research on aggression is based on laboratory simulations (often involving participants zapping each other with loud noise or spiking each other’s food with chilli sauce), Graham’s team collected real-life observational data to find out who gets aggressive and why.
The researchers followed the Theory of Coercive Actions, according to which aggressive acts have one or more motives: compliance (getting someone to do something, or stop doing something); grievance; social identity (to prove one’s status and power); and thrill-seeking.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority (77.5 per cent) of aggressive acts were instigated by men. Men more than women were driven to aggression by identity and thrill-seeking motives; by contrast female aggression was more often motivated by compliance and grievance. This often had a defensive intent, as a reaction against unwanted sexual advances.
As well as being particularly severe, aggression that was ignited by patrons who felt threats to their identity was also particularly likely to escalate, “because,” the researchers said, “their strong identity motivation reflects a situation where the person is already invested in winning or besting the other person.” Aggressive acts motivated by grievance were also likely to escalate, because of people feeling their actions were justified.
The researchers found that greater intoxication led to more serious aggression in women, but not men – perhaps because the latter were emboldened enough already. Younger men and bigger men also tended to engage in more serious aggressive acts, replicating past research showing that larger, intoxicated men are more likely to get aggressive than their smaller counterparts.
Graham and her colleagues said their findings could help contribute to preventative policies in late-night bars. For example, given the incendiary role of identity motives in aggressive incidents, efforts could be made to challenge traditional cultural norms that say masculine identity is about power and strength. Because of the escalating effect of grievance motives, security staff could be trained to diffuse situations early – for example, by replacing spilled drinks free of charge. And because so much female aggression was provoked by sexual harassment, the researchers advised establishments to create an atmosphere that discourages “invasive and aggressive sexual overtures whilst still maintaining an exciting venue where young people can explore their sexuality and meet potential partners.”
These recommendations sound well-intentioned and supported by the new evidence, but are they really achievable? What do you think?
Kathryn Graham, Sharon Bernards, D. Wayne Osgood, Michael Parks, Antonia Abbey, Richard B. Felson, Robert F. Saltz, and Samantha Wells (2012). Apparent motives for aggression in the social context of the bar. Psychology of Violence DOI: 10.1037/a0029677