Every time I open up Netflix, I feel like I see a new crime or horror show featured prominently, and often times the trailer immediately starts to play without any action on my part. The same is true for Hulu, and I am sure of many other streaming sites. I will be the first to admit that I love a good crime show; Criminal Minds, Law and Order, NCIS, you name it and I have probably seen it at least once.
I can confidently sing along to the opening theme song to Law and Order SVU and am emotionally invested in the characters. For better or worse, I have spent hours on the couch, glued to the TV, watching episode after episode of heinous crimes being committed and hopefully justice being served (Netflix makes it very easy to smoothly transition to the next one with minimal effort). I remember as a teenager these shows influenced me so much that I wanted to be a police officer, a detective, or even an undercover FBI agent. I felt tied to these jobs but at the same time was removed enough from the gory violence that I could enjoy the shows.
However, it was not until I read in the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky, that I realized the extent that violence and aggression are engrained in our society. Sapolsky (2017) discusses that we support the “right” kind of violence, say to protect a family member, and emphasizes the importance of context when perceiving a violent behavior. For example, aggression and violence are common in sports and are an integral part of competition. Cheers erupt from fans when hockey players get into fights, when the quarterback is sacked in football, and when a boxer lands a haymaker punch and knocks out the opposition. These are just a few of the more extreme examples of aggression in sports; a lot of times aggression can exist more subtly. But take these situations and remove the context of sports and competition, and you are left with violence. A well-placed punch no longer is acceptable and tackling someone most certainly is not.
Simple enough, our society celebrates violence; it has become somewhat of a problematic social norm. This becomes important when you think about group dynamics, especially taking into account groupthink and other group phenomena. Further, research shows that individuals in an ingroup end up carrying out violent acts against an outgroup that appears different from them (Struch & Shwartz, 1989).
Intergroup schadenfreude is related and also shows the power of violence in a group setting. Schadenfreude is defined as feeling pleasure at another person’s pain or misfortune. Thus, intergroup schadenfreude is feeling pleasure at the pain of someone in a social outgroup (Cikara, 2015). Research looking at the neural correlates behind schadenfreude shows that the ventral striatum (VS) is especially important in the feeling of schadenfreude.
The VS is a region of the brain important in the reward pathway and stimulation of this pathway is what makes humans feel pleasure. The VS generally releases dopamine during activities that involve the anticipation of reward, reward evaluation, and incentive-based learning (Haber, 2011). The VS is also important in processing motivational information provided from the amygdala, connecting the emotion center of the brain with reward (Haber, 2011). A study discussed by Cikara (2015) relates fMRI data to behavior, showing that the VS had increased activity when soccer fans watched a rival team’s fans receiving a shock. Increased activity in the VS is associated with greater dopamine release and thus a greater feeling of reward at the other individual’s pain. Because humans love the feeling of pleasure, motivational learning occurs when the individual sees the rival in pain and feels good. In the future, this makes the individual much more likely to cause both intergroup harm and more generally to another associated with a group, even if they are not technically part of the outgroup.
That this violence is present in groups is a testament to society’s acceptable of violence. To make matters worse, we grow up with depictions and glorifications of violence in our media and sport. We need to ask ourselves if we want to continue to perpetuate and celebrate the wrong types of violence. But a better question might be if our biology will let us give up violence.
Cikara, M. (2015). Intergroup Schadenfreude: motivating participation in collective violence. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 12-17. doi:10.1016/j.cobeha.2014.12.007.
Haber, S. N. (2011). Neuroanatomy of reward: A view from the ventral striatum. In J. A. Gottfried (Ed.), Neurobiology of Sensation and Reward (Chapter 11). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Struch, N. & Schwartz, S. H. (1989). Intergroup aggression: Its predictors and distinctness from in-group bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(3), 364-373. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0992(199805/06)28:3<343::AID-EJSP863>3.0.CO;2-U.