Are We Violent By Nature?: Reconciling Milgram, Browning, Collins, and Grossman

1 Oct

Stanley Milgram, Christopher Browning, Dave Grossman, and Randall Collins have all provided important contributions to the academic debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence.  All of these projects have attempted to answer the same question: “How willing are we to commit violence?”  On the surface, it would seem they provide contrasting answers.  The Milgram experiment and Browning both show that no matter whether individuals are opposed to violence, they tend commit violence when told to do so by an authority figure.  Collins and Grossman, however, paint a different picture.  In their work, individuals do their best to avoid killing, often going to incredible lengths.  Despite these differences, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins actually make complementary arguments that when aggregated, provide a good explanation for why individuals commit violence.

I’ll briefly sketch out the arguments presented in the three books (the Milgram experiment is well-known enough to omit).  Browning examines the experiences of Reserve Police Battalion 101 during WWII.  The battalion was made up of individuals unfit for regular combat, and contained few hardcore Nazis.  However, it was one of the most deadly units that made up the Einsatzgruppen, killing thousands of Jews on the eastern front over the course of the war.  He writes that while many soldiers expressed disgust and even disapproval of murdering Jews at the beginning, over the course of the war, the incidence of refusals decreased.  Browning argues a mixture of authority, peer coercion, and a warped morality structure that saw killing as the moral thing to do made the men of Reserve Battalion 101 kill with alarming efficiency.

Collins and Grossman, in Violence: A micro-sociological theory and On Killing, respectively, both examine the way soldiers react to killing opponents.  Many of their arguments are similar, so to prevent repetition, I’ll summarize them as if they were a single narrative.  They write that most soldiers do their best to avoid killing others in combat.  They will likely find the act of killing more traumatic than the fear of being killed.  In WWII, firing rates among soldiers stood at only 15%, with no difference between new and seasoned troops.  Troops unable to see the consequences of their actions, such as artillery units, have much higher firing rates.  Following studies of this phenomenon, militaries changed their tactics.  Larger fighting units were divided further into smaller, groups to encourage interdependence.  This, along with other changes, increased firing rates in the Vietnam War to 95%.

Despite different approaches to studying human dispositions toward committing violence, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins all have overlapping arguments.  Ultimately, in each project, they present a picture of most humans as reluctant to commit violence, but at the same time, vulnerable to social processes that promote the use of violence.  These social processes can be broadly divided into three categories: authority, values, and interdependent coercion.  Milgram is the canonical example of authority.  However, as Grossman and Collins demonstrate, even the strict authority structures of WWII militaries was not enough to convince the vast majority of soldiers to attempt and kill opponents.  In chaotic battlefield situations, the ability of leaders to exert their authority and punish those who resist is limited, differentiating it from a laboratory setting.  As for values, Browning argues that the Nazis were at least partially successful in creating a new morality in which getting past inherent adversity to killing, while difficult emotionally, was the correct thing to do.  However, Ben Valentino has demonstrated that for regular perpetrators, ideology is seldom a primary motivating factor for combatants to commit atrocities, and this logic can be extended to killing in general.  Finally, interdependent coercion is likely the most powerful factor in convincing the large percentage of civilians who avoid killing to do so.  In Ordinary Men, Browning shows how soldiers did not want to appear weak in front of their colleagues or leave unpleasant work to others.  Therefore, most chose to participate in killing.  Another facet of in-group coercion is interdependence.  If a small unit of soldiers feels that any hesitation by one soldier will likely mean death for another, firing rates will be much higher.  Militaries picked up on this phenomenon, and sought to create more cohesive and interdependent fighting units.

The debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence is not new and will not end anytime soon.  But to me, asking “are we violent?” is flawed, as answers to the question are too prone to over-generalization.  Collins, for example, writes that soldiers at the front lines tend to treat prisoners much more humanely than rear-guard soldiers, demonstrating the variation of human attitudes toward violence, and thus problematizing an all-encompassing conclusion.  The better question is “what makes us violent?”  As someone who’s interested in applying lessons learned from academic methods of study to decrease violence, hypothesizing on true human nature has little applicable value or even intellectual significance.  Hobbes’ theory of human nature was flawed because it imagined an ideal world, the state of nature, in which true human nature could be revealed.  We know, as Kalyvas argues, that even in ‘ungoverned spaces’, mutually understood rules govern the nature of conflict.  Ultimately, the world is not a laboratory, and attempting to strip away the complexity of human interaction to make it such is methodologically dubious.  We will always have violence and the absence of violence in this world, and scholars of conflict are better off understanding what makes human oscillate between the two rather than speculating on what is natural.


2 Responses to “Are We Violent By Nature?: Reconciling Milgram, Browning, Collins, and Grossman”


  1. Coercion and violence in Rwanda | Rachel Strohm - October 31, 2013

    […] Hirschel-Burns had a great post earlier this month on whether people are violent by nature over at The Widening Lens.  He reviews a number of seminal works on this issue (Stanley Milgram, […]

  2. Friday’s Reading List | Smoke & Stir - November 9, 2013

    […] Danny Hirschel-Burns on whether humans are violent by nature; Rachel Strohm has more, drawing lessons from work on the Rwandan genocide. […]

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