Is there now more psychological violence?

In all ways that we measure these things, physical violence has reduced in Western countries in the last 70 years, particularly mainland Western Europe. What about psychological violence though?

Psychological violence, ie the inflicting of mental pain, takes many forms. It includes the marketing campaigns that depict a shiny car as a necessity for ‘being free’. It includes the wife who cannot hide her disappointment at her husband for having a middle-of-the-road job. It includes the smile of the rich man in his fancy car as he looks wearily at the people coming out of the bus. It includes the neighbour who looks disapprovingly at the smudge on the coat of a child. It includes the mother who tells you to fear all strangers. It includes the friend who tells you he is gay and that you have to be ok with that even though you are not. It includes the priest who tells you that you are sinful by nature. It includes the con-man who tells you that you are fantastic as long as you buy the right shoes. It includes the Prime Minister who tells you all you needed to ‘succeed’ was a ladder because surely you then both wanted to climb it and could climb it. It includes the boss who devised new rules that makes the things you laugh at a sacking offence. It includes the client who shouts at something you have no control over. It includes the website that has an agreement of 300 pages full of tricks which you must agree to before seeing something. It includes the husband who cannot hide his disappointment at his wife’s expanding derriere. It includes the dispossessed who demand that others change their stories of their history.

Psychological violence hence includes all the actions and communications by others that make us feel diminished and reduce our access to goods, friends, gods, and human relations in general.

In this broad sense, psychological violence is a normal part of everyday life, just as in an earlier age physical violence was a normal part of everyday life. Then, physical violence was acceptable as a means of expanding our territory and ego, whereas now psychological violence is acceptable as a means of expanding our territory and ego.

You might say that my notion of psychological violence is too broad and that it contains ‘normal’ interaction between people who are ‘simply’ showing likes and dislikes, or things that are inevitable consequences of our own actions. My reaction to that is that it is not of interest here to moralise about the reasons for the violence, but rather to note its existence and that in all the examples mentioned, the mental pain involved is real.

Has it increased? Direct data on this question is lacking: official measures of recognised forms of psychological abuse (bullying, stalking, racism, sexism) are patchy and capture but tiny aspects of the huge realm of psychological violence that goes on every day.

It is also not clear that psychological violence is a bad thing, just as it is not truly clear that physical violence is always bad. Our wish for control and a better life is constrained by others who wish the same and push back, one way or another.

Consider first the best case, using speculation and exaggeration, that I can make in favour of the hypothesis that psychological violence has increased, and then the best case I can make that it has decreased.

                Why has psychological violence increased?

Physical violence leaves bruises and corpses, but can also be a quick way to settle an argument as to who is entitled to what. The winner walks away with the land, the girl, the business and the esteem. The loser skulks off somewhere else or makes sure (s)he keeps his/her head down where (s)he is.

So when physical violence became less and less accepted, arguments over the finite amount of jobs, resources, and attractive partners had to be settled by psychological violence. Shaming, lying, bullying, ganging-up, belittling, accusing, humiliating, and ridiculing became the normal way of settling disputes. These ways take longer and are more damaging to the mental health of individuals, but they are less easy to verify and they keep property intact, so they have flourished.

How do we know these forms of violence have increased? Because anxiety levels have increased since the second world war in the Western world. Obesity, arising from flights into ‘comfort food’, has also grown all over the Western world, even amongst children. Anxiety and obesity are then visible outgrowths of the psychological violence that individuals in our culture now endure on a daily basis.

Our kids, more than ever before, thus grow up with impossible expectations: they must win at sports, become president, fly to the moon, be rich and beautiful, and of course abide by a zillion social codes. A tiny slither succeeds, 99.99% fails and feels condemned to the labels ‘failure, mediocre, loser, slacker’.

Workers, non-workers, and adults generally now face more pressured to ‘succeed’ than before. A man who does not succeed in work is now almost by definition not trying hard if you believe the posters that say ‘you can do anything you work hard enough for’. A woman who does not manage a thriving family plus her own business is either ‘not escaping the clutches of the patriarchy’ or else ‘failing as a woman’.

And both children and adults are not merely told to achieve the impossible, they are shown pictures of the impossible constantly. Billboards inflict expectational violence on us constantly by showing us the beautiful and successful people we should aspire to be, but whom we neither will be nor have any meaningful relation with. The media shows us the super-winners in our societies who have it all – wealth, looks, family, fame, and even happiness.

We are bombarded with images of what we are told we should want and should be, but have no real hope to achieve. So we lie to ourselves that we will soon be successful, and meanwhile, we resent. We take it out on others. And within the small confines of our actual world, in the home and at work, we are violent to others. We tell them to achieve the impossible too. We inflict procedures on them. We cannot hide our disappointment about ourselves that is mirrored in the disappointment with those around us.

So we are complicit. Without our help, heroes would be unknowns. Millionaires would have nothing. The beautiful would be normal. It is our fantasies and compliance that lift them up, make a small handful of us join, and keeps most of the rest of us down. The psychological violence we receive is merely the mirror of the violence we dole out every day, stuck in our impossible fantasies.

And where has the increased psychological violence ultimately come from? It has come from increased inequality in wealth and power, together with increased individualism and rapid technological change that makes us aware of what we do not have. This has engendered feelings of helplessness, ignorance, victimhood, and angst at who we are, at how we can maintain or capture a valued place amongst others, and how we relate to other generations who are raised with different technologies. Our place in life feels more contested and under threat than ever before, so we have more violence inflicted on us and we dole it out more, either in defence of our place or in an attempt to thrive at the expense of someone else.


                                Why has psychological violence decreased?

Physical violence has decreased spectacularly in the last few hundred years as more and more of us have been crammed together on the same amount of land. We first had to learn how to stop killing each other and keeping our hands off private parts.

Compared to centuries gone by, many of us have managed to kick the habit of hitting those who annoy us, and grabbing what we want. We now work for it, cajole, cheat, lie, negotiate, and coordinate to get what we want. That is progress.

Once non-violence became normal some 60 years ago, we then set out to ingrain the habit of peacefulness into our inner worlds: we have had to learn not to be too upset when we didn’t get what we wanted, and to preferably stop wanting things so desperately in the first place.

Complex cooperative behaviour and inner peace are now part of the mix of being a successful human. Eastern meditation techniques, developed in societies that for ages needed to pacify large groups of people, have now become commonplace in the West. The ideas that we should stop wanting and that we should let go of the wish to dominate others are growing in the West. Mindfulness, calmness, an orientation on inner mastery and outer harmony have stopped being weird concepts and are now advocated in boardrooms, parliaments, and schools.

Of course many of us never managed to suppress our animal tendencies. Those that didn’t manage to suppress the violent side find ourselves increasingly isolated, dead, or in prison. Compared to Europe, the Americans have some catching up to do on this front, but there has been progress.

Where is the evidence that our inner lives have become more tranquil and that our treatment of others has improved?

The evidence is extensive and in multiple dimensions: happiness levels in Europe have improved the last 20 years (particularly in Italy, the UK and France according to the Eurobarometer), which is a good measure of well-feeling and thus of how someone is experiencing their lives. Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs) has also gone down, a sign that there is less frustration and mental anger to suppress and deal with. At the same time, volunteering is very high, solidarity as measured by the size of the welfare state is unprecedented, and the tolerance for any open form of bullying, shaming, and belittling has reduced. Psychological violence is now legislated against and recognised, with violence against the well-feeling of minorities, sexual orientation, and religious sentiments outlawed. Legal protection against visible psychological violence at work is now in place.

There are also signs that our language and imagery has become less violent and less offensive: the use of profanities in teenage movies has declined over time, whilst respectful language use has gone up with more careful depictions of people with mental and physical limitation. Things like dwarf throwing has been outlawed, Gay parades are plentiful and popular, and the Paralympics have reduced the sense of exclusion of various groups in mainstream sports. So the ability to express identities rather than hide them has increased.

For what it’s worth, measures of sexism at work have gone down spectacularly in the US in recent decades, underscoring our increased civility.

It is thus a gentle age in which we live, with not merely high levels of wealth and physical safety, but increasingly a more respectful and humane interaction with all those around us. Where that gentleness ultimately comes from is less clear, but one possibility is that the internet and social media revolution has made it possible for us to be constantly psychologically close to our loved ones, and that the service-oriented nature of work has made us more attune to human emotions and conflict-resolution than our previous work (agriculture and industry).


                On balance

Both stories told above seems plausible to me. I can even believe a middle version wherein the level of violence we humans engage in and suffer is pretty much constant, where ambition fills up any slack in the pressures that separate our desires from those of others.

Has psychological violence gone up or down? I….just….do….not….know.

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13 Responses to Is there now more psychological violence?

  1. KIEN CHOONG says:

    Robert Cialdini (a psychologist) and more recently Robert Shiller (behavioural economist) have argued that other people will exploit our psychological weaknesses and behavioural biases. And we might not even be aware we are being exploited. Sometimes we are aware, and that exploitation comes across as “violent”.

    I sometimes feel psychology ought to be a compulsory subject in school. If I was more aware of my psychological weaknesses and behavioural biases, I think I would be more productive, happier, and less susceptible to “strategic influence” by other people.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Most of the issues you raise in the case for psych violence going up don’t seem to me to be violence. Most could be discomfort, but much isn’t even that. Just stuff we’d rather was something else.

    I think of the posters in WWI the most disgusting of which was “Women of Britain say ‘Go'” and similar ones elsewhere are full on psychological violence. Deeply creepy and manipulative which would have done real damage to people’s psyches. Of course I guess if you believed in the war that was a small price to pay.

    Anyway, we’re certainly in an age of massive manipulation. It seems overly dramatic to call it ‘violence’ but it’s disrespect of a high order and of a kind which, in its relentlessness has a major effect on us I expect – and as you charge – makes us a lot unhappier than we would otherwise be.

    • paul frijters says:

      I pondered what to call all this. ‘offense’, ‘discomfort’, ‘micro-agressions’, ’emotional pressure’, etc. suggested itself. However, since the obvious counterpoint is the disappearance of physical violence, psychological violence seemed the most apt terms, particularly since I wanted to discuss how the psychological violence is used towards the same ends as in a previous era physical violence was used.

      But agreed, obviously, that its a scale ranging from vaguely unpleasant to totally traumatising. “Just stuff we’d rather was something else” can be traumatic. And all the examples I talked about are somewhat intentional in the sense that a person could know, on reflection, what effect the actions would have on the psyche of others.

      I have wondered whether we should make it the concern of the state to protect us from what you call relentless manipulation. The first step towards making that argument is to call it violence. It violates our inner peace.

  3. The ‘words are violence’ notion is a hardy perennial justifying attacks on free speech. The WHO has a reasonable definition of violence, which “psychological violence” does not seem to fit into.

    • paul frijters says:

      free speech is interesting in this regard, though of course Australia has no meaningful free speech laws. In Australia, it is perfectly legal for organisations to limit speech of any kind inside their organisations (eg company rules on what is appropriate, church rules on who is allowed to say something when), and of course defamation legislation is used by the powerful to silence people with no money. So don’t kid yourself that free speech rules in Australia.

      Protecting individuals from advertising and proseletysing within universities, airplanes, airports, social media, etc., is a serious option to consider for policy makers. The ‘public attention space’ is now being ruthlessly abused and there is something to be said for making the provision of ‘quiet spaces’ an objective of health protection. I dare say this is a quite likely trajectory.

  4. Hasbeen says:

    You know, if I were to dig enough holes, turn over enough rocks & fallen logs, & look carefully enough, eventually I’m sure to find a few worms. If however I go about my tasks not looking for worms, I’m unlikely to see any.

    If I want to go fishing, there would be happiness in finding those worms. If I want to be upset, unhappy & aggrieved with the world, I would find those worms unpleasant slimy things. If I were a botanist, or farmer I would be overjoyed to find them, proving the soil is in good health.

    Unfortunately we have too many people, with out enough real work to do today, to earn their living. Paul Frijters appears to be one of them. They go looking for something to be unhappy about, & Pauls vivid imagination has found it in a car add for gods sake.

    Paul it is time to grow up, & stop looking for something to be unhappy about, & even then gets it wrong. Don’t feel sorry for me because I will not get a new car, hell I don’t even want one. If you can only be happy by being unhappy, be sorry for the bloke who must sell 2 of the things this week to be able to make his mortgage payments.

    In fact stop seeing gloom everywhere. Be happy for those who have a job building those new cars. Be happy for the photographer who earned his lunch taking the pretty picture, & the people who printed the photo, or produced the TV add where you saw it.

    Rather than gloom you need to see the joy in that car & the add, & the happiness it has produced. It is all a matter of attitude mate, & from this piece, yours is all wrong. If anyone has tried to use psychological violence on me they have wasted their time, as I just did not notice, & I don’t intend noticing any time soon.

    • paul frijters says:

      You do seem agitated by this piece hasbeen. Must have been something I said!

      I certainly do study joy and happiness. Quite a bit in fact. And part of that job is to understand mental health, which hinges crucially on mental pressures (aka psychological violence). And as this piece makes clear, social scientists don’t measure mental pressure and have no idea what influences it or whether it has gone up or down. We have lots of stories, but no data. We only measure mental health outcomes, not the pressures that affect it. It is then important when trying to understand a phenomenon that has never been really studied before to let the mind wonder and think of what the answers might be, and to then face up to what one doesn’t know.

      But don’t worry about such things: that’s my job, not yours!

  5. conrad says:

    “I can even believe a middle version wherein the level of violence we humans engage in and suffer is pretty much constant”

    I suspect that would be consistent with the idea that things like the level of arousal people like and happiness have a large biological component (within non-extreme conditions), and thus if you manage to stop one type of manifestation like physical violence, people just think of other ways to get to the same level of arousal. Since trying to measure all the culturally different ways this could occur must be almost impossible, perhaps tracking other measures in the long term that are correlates of it (say, level of cortisol or similar) would give you a less culturally interesting but more reliable measure.

    • paul frijters says:

      cortisol has been studied to death for decades now, but to be honest, its sh*te. For one its a measure of outcomes, not pressure itself. But equally importantly, it varies tremendously over the day and across people for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with mental health issues. Sports, diet, sleep, digestion, etc. Its correlation with happiness and self-reported stress is hence pretty weak.

      Do you have another candidate, because I do want one!?

      and indeed, the whole set-point stuff presumes some average level of arousal and pressure. But we don’t find that much evidence for the set-point stuff either, at least not in happiness. Large persistent differences across countries and within the lifetime of people are regularly observed, inconsistent with these homeostatis stories.

      • conrad says:

        I don’t think it’s a super measure either (I agree its very variable across short time spans) — I wish I could think of a better measure with long term validity, but I can’t.

        Part of the problem is that I don’t think asking people to introspect about things like their happiness or anxiety as one does with surveys is especially good either. The assumption is that people can introspect these things with high accuracy, but introspection will only get you so far. For example, I don’t feel anxious at all when speaking in public, but if I looked at other measures (e.g., blood pressure), it’s clear I have a reasonable level of anxiety in some cases. So the outcome measures is better than anything I could introspect.

        I also worry about cultural differences (both across country and time). For example, when you are say there are large persistent differences across countries, I would worry about the extent to which people across countries (and time) respond differently not because of differences in the underlying things happening, but because of cultural differences in the way terms are loaded and so on that could systematically bias things (including things that might affect them unconsciously). I’m not sure which ones you guys are using now, but if I look at things like the Oxford Happiness Index, I’m not sure how one could really compare scores even between individuals (although variability within individuals might be better) — you probably know better measures I don’t know about. Perhaps this is just me being up-tight about what are minor effects, but I would be curious to know how well validated you can actually make these measures cross-culturally.

        What else could be done? I went to a workshop recently where they were getting people to monitor things across longer time spans in a single-click occasionally type paradigm on their phones (you get a bit of other data with it that you can collect on phones easily). So you get various bits of relatively minimal data, but people are happy to do it over very long periods. This means even if the measures are crude you get so many of them it may possible to get around the noise problem (I’ll wait and see!). At present, I don’t think they’ve use it for much, although I can think of how it might provide alternative data sources for things like happiness and anxiety.

  6. Suburbanite says:

    You raise an interesting topic. But this is a lazy generalisation:

    “Obesity, arising from flights into ‘comfort food’, has also grown all over the Western world, even amongst children. ”

    Are you basing this shim-sham on discredited BS like all calories are equal? Try it for yourself with a junk food diet for at least a month – long enough for your body to adjust. Just count your calories and you will be fine by your own admission – but I will wager that you won’t experiment on yourself. Otherwise show me some science that backs up this simple-minded assertion of yours.

    • paul frijters says:

      I am sorry, but I have a policy of not engaging in this sort of stuff with any blogger of whom the name is unclear. Otherwise it invariably descends into name calling. So if you want to be taken seriously, be serious and begin by saying who you are.

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