Tag Archives: violence

Air pollution can increase violent crime rates, study finds

Air pollution is considered a severe health problem across the globe, causing millions of deaths every year due to exposure to a mix of particles and gases. But breathing dirty air doesn’t only make you sick but also more aggressive, according to research.

A set of studies by researchers at Colorado State University found strong links between short-term exposure to air pollution and aggressive behavior, in the form of aggravated assaults and other violent crimes across the continental United States.

The team cross-analyzed three highly detailed datasets: daily criminal activity from the National Incident-Based Reporting System managed by the FBI; daily, county-level air pollution from 2006-2013 collected by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors; and daily data on wildfire smoke plumes from satellite imagery.

Rates of pollution are usually measured through concentrations of ozone, as well as of “PM2.5,” or breathable particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, which has documented associations with health effects.

The research showed a 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in same-day exposure to PM2.5 is associated with a 1.4% increase in violent crimes, nearly all of which is driven by crimes categorized as assaults. Researchers also found that a 0.01 parts-per-million increase in same-day exposure to ozone is associated with a 0.97% increase in violent crime or a 1.15% increase in assaults.

“We’re talking about crimes that might not even be physical – you can assault someone verbally,” co-author Jude Bayham said. “The story is, when you’re exposed to more pollution, you become marginally more aggressive, so those altercations – some things that may not have escalated – do escalate.”

The researchers made no claims on the physiological, mechanistic relationship of how exposure to pollution leads someone to become more aggressive. The results only show a strong correlative relationship between such crimes and levels of air pollution, not looking at other possible explanations.

“The results are fascinating, and also scary,” Jeff Pierce said. “When you have more air pollution, this specific type of crime, domestic violent crime in particular, increases quite significantly.”

Air pollution

The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections.

More than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the World Health Organization guideline level of 10µg/m3, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.

The major outdoor pollution sources include vehicles, power generation, building heating systems, agriculture/waste incineration and industry. In addition, more than 3 billion people worldwide rely on polluting technologies and fuels (including biomass, coal, and kerosene) for household cooking, heating and lighting, releasing smoke into the home and leaching pollutants outdoors.

Yet another study finds that violent video games don’t make teens more aggressive

Credit: Pixabay.

Many parents are concerned that some violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto might influence their children to engage in antisocial behavior — but their concerns are probably misplaced. As far as aggression goes, a new study found that British teens who played video games containing explicit violence were not more aggressive than their peers who didn’t play video games at all.

“The idea that violent video games drive real-world aggression is a popular one, but it hasn’t tested very well over time,’ said lead researcher Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Despite interest in the topic by parents and policy-makers, the research has not demonstrated that there is cause for concern.”

Psychologists at the University of Oxford surveyed 1,000 British teens, aged 14 to 15, about their gaming habits and behaviors, finding that half of girls and two-thirds of boys played video games. In order to minimize biases, the researchers also interviewed the participants’ parents or caretakers.

Violent content in video games was assessed as objectively as possible, with the official Pan European Game Information (EU) and Entertainment Software Rating Board (US) rating system, two official video game content rating systems, rather than the participants’ perception of violence in the games they played.

An important part of the study’s design was preregistration. Before the study began, the researchers publically reported their hypothesis, methods, and analysis technique.

“Our findings suggest that researcher biases might have influenced previous studies on this topic, and have distorted our understanding of the effects of video games,'” says co-author Dr Netta Weinstein from Cardiff University.

“Part of the problem in technology research is that there are many ways to analyse the same data, which will produce different results. A cherry-picked result can add undue weight to the moral panic surrounding video games. The registered study approach is a safe-guard against this,” says Przybylski.

It’s not hard to understand why parents can believe violence in video games might be a bad influence on their children. As anyone who has played has played an online video game knows, there’s a lot of trolling and momentary outbursts that qualify as antisocial behavior. However, repeated studies have shown no correlation between playing video games and aggressive tendencies in teenagers.

In 2016, a review of 300 studies on violent video games and children’s behavior was released by the American Psychological Association Task Force on Violent Media. The review concluded that violent video games present a “risk factor” for heightened aggression in children. However, critics have pointed out that many of the studies used to support this conclusion relied on anecdotal evidence or were poorly designed (for instance, surveying children right after they played an emotionally engaging video game).

Previously, ZME Science reported that video game aggression can stem from frustration, not violence. The study found that failure to master a game, getting stuck or losing over and over again led to frustration and aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not.

The authors of the new study hope that their approach might be mimicked in other fields where there’s a lot of prejudice and conclusions are often based on anecdotal evidence.

“Researchers should use the registered study approach to investigate other media effects phenomena. There are a lot of ideas out there like ‘social media drives depression’ and ‘technology addiction that lowers quality of life’ that simply have no supporting evidence. These topics and others that drive technological anxieties should be studied more rigorously – society needs solid evidence in order to make appropriate policy decisions,” Przybylski said.

The findings were reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science

Lego police.

Police officers face and dole out more violence when their weapons aren’t concealed

Taser-toting police officers use more force than their unarmed counterparts, a new study reveals — but it’s not necessarily their choice.

Lego police.

Image via Pixabay.

New research studying the activity of London police officers show that those carrying visible electroshock (and likely any) weapons were more likely to be assaulted. Overall, they had to use force during these interventions 48% more often than on unarmed shifts, the study explains. While ‘use of force’ includes everything from restraint and handcuffing to CS spray, the Tasers themselves were only fired twice during the year-long study period, the authors note.

The blade itself

“We found that officers are more likely to be assaulted when carrying electroshock weaponry, and more likely to apply force,” said lead researcher Dr Barak Ariel from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.

“There was no increase in injury of suspects or complaints, suggesting it was not the police instigating hostilities. The presence of Tasers appears to provoke a pattern where suspects become more aggressive toward officers, who in turn respond more forcefully,” he said.

The team says these results likely stem from the ‘weapons effect‘: a psychological phenomenon in which sight of a weapon increases aggressive behavior. This aggression, however, didn’t come from the policemen themselves.

The team worked with the City of London police force, whose members are responsible for policing the Square Mile business district (in the center of London). The force also holds national responsibility for Economic Crime and prioritizes counter-terrorism, violent crime, and public order due to its central location. This force was the first in England and Wales to test “extended” use of Tasers in frontline officers — and Dr. Ariel and her team used the chance to carry out their experiment.

Dr Ariel’s team (randomly) allocated a Taser-armed officer to 400 frontline shifts and compared their results to 400 unarmed shifts carried out over the same period. A total of 5,981 incidents occurred during the study.

Overall, squads carrying Tasers saw a 48% higher use of force than unarmed ones. The team also reports seeing a “contagion effect,” whereby unarmed officers accompanying Taser carriers used force 19% more often than those on Taser-free (control) shifts. Taser-carrying shifts recorded six physical assaults against police, compared to just three on the unarmed shifts. It may seem small, but the team argues that it is a worrying trend (it is, after all, a doubling in the number of assaults).

Another surprising finding was that the actual use of electroshock weapons was minimal over the study period, despite the increased hostility. Just nine “deholsterings” were recorded during the study, only two of which resulted in electric shocks applied to a suspect.

“For many, a weapon is a deterrence. However, some individuals interpret the sight of a weapon as an aggressive cue — a threat that creates a hostile environment,” Dr Ariel said. “The response is consequently a ‘fight or flight’ dilemma that can result in a behavioural manifestation of aggression and assault. This is what we think we are seeing in our Taser experiment.”

“It would not be surprising to find that serious or violent offenders fit this criteria, especially young males — the very type of suspect that is regularly in direct contact with frontline police.”

The team also offers a simple solution to bypass this effect on the ground: conceal the weapons. Such a decision would take very little money to implement while reducing the weapons effect seen in the study — without leaving officers weaponless.

“This conclusion could be generalised to all types of police armoury, including the lethal firearms carried by police officers. If the presence of weapons can lead to aggression by suspects, so its concealment should be able to reduce aggression and increase officer safety.”

David Lawes, Chief Superintendent of the City of London Police and study co-author said that the organization is testing whether new holsters or a change in the weapons’ position would help limit the weapon effect. The City of London Police is also instructing its officers on the findings of the previous study.

The paper “The ‘Less-Than-Lethal Weapons Effect’ — Introducing TASERs to Routine Police Operations in England and Wales: A Randomized Controlled Trial” has been published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.

Dragon fight.

Exposure to graphic images shifts your perception of reality, video games study shows

It’s an unlockable perk.

Dragon fight.

Player fighting a dragon in Skyrim.
Image credits Eliot Carson / Flickr.

Gamers, particularly those who partake in violent video games, show greater resilience when viewing disturbing images than their peers, a new study suggests. While the research doesn’t establish a cause-effect relationship between the two, it is an important look into how exposure to violent images can alter perception.

Needs more dakka

“Our study focused on perception and how it may be disrupted by negative stimuli. This is very different from other research on the link between violent video games and social behaviour, such as aggression,” says study author and cognitive psychologist Dr. Steve Most from University of New South Wales (UNSW) Psychology.

People who frequently play violent video games may gain a degree of immunity to disturbing images. The findings come from a study on emotion-induced blindness at the UNSW carried out under the supervision of Dr. Most. Emotion-induced blindness is a process via which a person’s emotions impact their perception of the world.

Emotions have a central role in shaping our perception. You can read more about that relationship here and here.

Such players were more adept at ignoring graphic content while viewing a rapid succession of images, making them better at focusing on the pictures they were asked to spot. The study doesn’t prove that this happened because of gaming history per se — it established a correlation, not causation. However, it’s an interesting look into how our perception might shift following exposure to violent imagery.

“When people rapidly sift through images in search of a target image, a split-second emotional reaction can cause some of them to be unable to see the target,” Dr Most explains. “This occurs even if you’re looking right at the target. It’s as if the visual system stops processing the target in order to deal with the emotional imagery it’s just been confronted with.”

For the study, the team split participants into two groups: a group of ‘heavy gamer’ participants and a control group of people who played no video games at all. They classified heavy games as those who played more than 5 hours per week of video games that ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ involved violence. Participants were not told that the experiment would focus on their video game playing history so as not to skew the results.

Call of Duty drones.

Call of Duty is definitely violent. And one of the most popular games out there right now.
Image via Flickr.

During the experiment, the participants were shown a sequence of 17 images, each flashing on the screen for 0.1 seconds. These images were combinations of upright landscape-style photos, but among them was one ‘target’ image — which was rotated to the left or right by 90 degrees — which participants were asked to spot and report on its rotation.

In some of these sequences, the team also included a ‘distractor’ image. These would appear for a significantly longer period — between 200 and 400 milliseconds — before the target image and were either emotionally-neutral (such as non-threatening animals or people), or they showcased graphic / emotionally negative content. This could be violent (depictions of assault) or simply kind of gross (like dirty toilet bowls, for example).

Those in the gamer group seemed to be largely immune to these emotional disruptions, the team reports. They were able to correctly identify target images and their rotation with greater accuracy than the control group, despite the team’s attempts to throw them off. In neutral-images streams, the two groups performed virtually the same, with no significant differences in accuracy.

This last bit is important because it rules out that gamers were simply better at paying attention than the control group. Those who regularly play violent video games were generally less responsive to emotional images instead, the team believes. Since they didn’t focus disproportionately on these pictures, gamers could better perceive other elements around them.

“This study suggests that, depending on the situation, people with different levels of violent media and game consumption can also have different perceptions of the environment,” says Dr Most.

“This suggests a link between violent video game exposure and a person’s perception, that is, how they process information.”

The team underscores that the results don’t mean violent video games make people emotionally numb. Instead, the study only focused on “perception and how it may be disrupted by negative stimuli,” Dr. Most explains, and shouldn’t be seen as linking violent video games with social behavior such as aggression.

“There is conflicting literature about the degree to which playing violent video games affect real-world behaviour. This study only investigated a low-level effect on an individual’s perception, and we definitely need further research into the mechanisms that underlie this impact of emotion on perception.”

The team plans to follow-up on their study by investigating emotion-induced blindness in emergency first responders — another group that is frequently (and very directly) exposed to graphic images.

The paper “Aversive images cause less perceptual interference among violent video game players: evidence from emotion-induced blindness” was published in the journal Visual Cognition.

Worrying survey finds that 54% of all Americans don’t store their guns safely

More than half of all Americans don’t safely store all their guns, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report. Even in the case of households with children, just 55 percent of all people store their firearms properly.

In 2016, the most recent set of available data, there were 1,637 firearm deaths among children under the age of 18 in the US. Out of those deaths, 39% were the result of suicide — many of which can be traced back to unsafe storage of weapons. In fact, unsafe weapon storage has been a key contributor to gun violence, death, and injury, particularly in vulnerable populations like children. In that light, the fact that the majority of Americans don’t guard their guns is extremely worrying.

“Household gun ownership can increase the risk of homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings in the home, but practicing safe storage for all guns reduces these risks,” says lead study author Cassandra Crifasi, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

“The survey findings indicate a real public health emergency. More than half of gun owners in the U.S. are not storing all of their guns safely–in a locked gun safe, cabinet or case, locked into a gun rack, or secured with a trigger lock.”

The team surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,444 U.S. gun owners about how they store their weapons. Aside from the findings reported above, researchers also found that people who were most concerned about home defense were 30% less likely to practice safe storage for all their firearms. It’s ironic, but perfectly represents a large part of the gun ownership controversy: guns bought for defense often end up causing unintentional shootings and accidents.

Recent data indicates that approximately one in three US households have guns, and that household-level gun ownership is a strong determinant of gun injury. Most people buy guns for self-defense, but ironically, they often end up doing more damage to themselves or their loved ones. Unsecured guns are an important part of this damage.

“Many bring guns into their homes for self-defense, but unsecured guns can lead to unintentional shootings, suicides, and tragic cases of troubled teens using guns to commit acts of violence,” said Crifasi. “Communicating with gun owners about the importance of safe storage is a challenging opportunity. If we are successful at improving storage practices among gun owners, particularly those with children in the home, we could reduce risks for gun violence and injury.”

There was some positive news, however: researchers found that gun owners who took a gun safety training course were twice as likely to ensure that their weapons were safely stored.

“It’s encouraging to see the positive associations between safety training and reporting safe storage practices,” said study co-author Daniel Webster, ScD, MPH, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “Requiring gun purchasers to take safety training classes, as a handful of states already do, might lead to more gun owners storing their guns safely.”

The study, “Storage Practices of U.S. Gun Owners” was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Violent games don’t affect empathy, new study finds

The idea that violent games lead to antisocial behavior got another dent as a new study found no connection between said games and antisocial behavior.

Violent games, violent behavior?

It’s not just kids that play computer games these days — people all ages enjoy blowing stuff up. Image credits: Major Nelson.

Ever since personal computers became a thing, so too did computer games — many of which involve killing or hurting other characters. Naturally, this sparked a heated debate: do these games make us more violent as well? The first instinct, for most people, is to say ‘yes’. For the longest time, violent computer games were thought to have a bad influence on people, especially on children, and were frowned upon by many a parent. But this was more of a popular view than a scientific fact.

As the science came in, the situation became much hazier and difficult to understand. Some studies have illustrated the positive aspects of computer games, while others have found a connection between violent games and violent behavior (keep in mind that correlation does not equal causality). In 2017, this is still a heated debate and one which won’t be settled anytime soon. This new study, however, may be an important puzzle piece.

In a research published in Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. Gregor Szycik of the Hannover Medical School, and colleagues, investigated the long-term effects of playing violent video games.

“The research question arises first from the fact that the popularity and the quality of video games are increasing, and second, we were confronted in our clinical work with more and more patients with problematic and compulsive video game consumption,” explains Szycik.

Why this matters

Unlike most previous studies, this one analyzed the long-term effects of playing violent games. Szycik and his team analyzed only male subjects, since they are much more predisposed towards playing such computer games. All the gamers had played first-person shooter video games, such as Call of Duty or Counterstrike, at least two hours daily for the previous four years. However, in order to rule out any short-term effects, they were asked to refrain from playing for a minimum of three hours before the experiment started, though most of them refrained for several days. After this, they were scanned in MRI machines as they answered psychological questionnaires. They were also presented evocative images designed to provoke an emotional and empathetic response. After, this the results were compared to a control group of non-gamers.

The findings surprised researchers, going against their initial hypothesis: both gamers and non-gamers had similar neural responses to the emotionally provocative images. In other words, playing the violent games did nothing to dim their empathic response. This contradicts the classic belief that violent games reduce our empathy and make us more prone to violent responses.

“We hope that the study will encourage other research groups to focus their attention on the possible long-term effects of video games on human behavior,” says Szycik. “This study used emotionally-provocative images. The next step for us will be to analyze data collected under more valid stimulation, such as using videos to provoke an emotional response.”

The impact of computer games on our personalities remains hard to gauge. As it so often happens, will require more research to reach fruition. In the meantime, many people will keep on playing many games. Is this making them worse human beings? We don’t know yet but as long as you treat it like a game and separate it from real life, you should be OK.

Journal Reference: Gregor R. Szycik1, Bahram Mohammadi, Thomas F. Münte and Bert T. te Wildt — Lack of Evidence That Neural Empathic Responses Are Blunted in Excessive Users of Violent Video Games: An fMRI Study. Front. Psychol., 08 March 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00174

The ‘hateback’ loop of dehumanization could plunge America into civil violence

Dehumanizing certain groups of people — viewing them as less evolved or civilized compared to your own — may lead to a vicious circle of hate and violence between the two groups, a new study shows. More worryingly, the team showed that this process can become a common denominator for people supporting particular political figures, whose views and rhetoric end up fueling violent or hateful reactions from the targets — a feedback loop which reinforces a new cycle of dehumanization.

Image credits: Carlo Sardena / Pixabay.

It’s a bad time to be a Muslim or Mexican immigrant in the US right now. And the main reason is all the hate being thrown around by the president, echoed by a large part of his supporters. A team of psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania set out to understand why some Americans are so happy to vilify these groups, and what impact this can have on society. The root cause, they say, is a process called dehumanization — basically considering these groups as less human than the rest of society.

If you’ve read that last sentence and got flashbacks to 1930’s Germany, congratulations, you’ve spotted the problem. The team warns that it may ultimately lead to a self-reinforcing loop of ever greater hate and violence between a perceived ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Less than us

Two of the experiments carried out by the team involved the “Ascent of Man” diagram, which illustrates stages of human evolution from our earliest ape-like ancestors to modern man. Participants were asked to think of the diagram as a scale, with the most primitive member being ‘0’ and the modern human ‘100’.

First, the researchers asked 342 non-Hispanic Americans to place Mexican immigrants and non-Hispanic Americans on the scale. In the second, 455 non-Muslim Americans were asked to perform the same task for Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. All participants in both experiments were asked which presidential candidate they supported.

Some of the participants placed Mexican immigrants or Muslims lower on the Ascent than their non-Hispanic or non-Muslim counterparts, respectively. Essentially, what these people were saying is that Mexicans and Muslims were less human than others. Supporters of Trump were more much more likely to dehumanize these former groups compared to those who rooted for other Democratic or Republican candidates.

The team also looked at how the two groups’ experience of being dehumanized might affect their place in society. This part of the study included 283 Mexican immigrants and 124 Muslims. For the former, participants who said they felt dehumanized were more likely to dehumanize Trump in turn and support anti-Trump initiatives such as boycotting his business compared with those who did not feel dehumanized, the researchers report. They were also more likely  to “want to see him personally suffer, and endorse hostile actions such as spitting in his face.” Muslims who felt dehumanized by non-Muslim counterparts were more likely to endorse violent approaches of supporting civil rights of Muslims in the U.S. than those who didn’t feel dehumanized, the authors add.

Hateback loop

But to be clear, these attitudes come as a response from a group that has suffered “widespread derogation and dehumanization,” both of which are “highly associated with supporting Republican candidates (especially Donald Trump),” the authors note. The very first line written down in this study clarifies that “members of advantaged groups who feel dehumanized by other groups respond aggressively”, so if anything their actions don’t make them different, but just as human as the rest of American society. In fact, immigrants as a group have been shown to engage in less crime and violent behavior than the native population in normal conditions.

Image credits Lorie Shaull / Flickr.

These aren’t the actions of groups who is out to get you — these are people who are oppressed, publicly insulted as hordes of thieves and rapists, considered less than the rest, under “man” on the chart of evolution. Guess who also put a word on that concept.

Yep, it was Nazis. Apparently what America needed to be great again was some Reich. Ugh.

Apart from the indelible fact that it’s morally wrong and deeply bigoted to consider others as inferior beings to your own group — especially when that group historically formed from ‘others’ migrating to the US — a rhetoric of hate and dehumanization actually creates and deepens the issues for which these groups are shunned.

“If we use rhetoric and enact policies that make Muslims feel dehumanized, this may lead them to support exactly the types of aggression that reinforce the perception that they are ‘less civilized’ than ‘us,'” study co-author Emile Bruneau said in a statement.

“In this way, dehumanization can become self-fulfilling in the minds of the dehumanizers and justify their aggression.”

The authors note that there are some limitations to the study, most notably that correlation does not imply causation — and a certain cause-effect relationship couldn’t be established for certain elements of the findings. For example, although the process of dehumanization was strongly correlated to people’s support for Trump, the researchers can’t prove or disprove if someone’s tendency to dehumanize these groups led to their support of the candidate. But as the researchers note, it’s likely that people aren’t supporting him despite his rhetoric, “but in part because of it.”

So you’ll have to draw your own conclusion on that last point. But the study passed peer-review and made it to publication in a reputed scientific journal — it’s not bogus, and it draws some huge warning signs that a healthy society will never be born from hate and oppression. Especially not one who fashions itself the land of the free.

The full paper “Backlash: The Politics and Real-World Consequences of Minority Group Dehumanization” has been published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.


TULE RAFTS ON SAN FRANCISCO BAY. Credit: California Missions Resource Center.

Resource scarcity drove prehistoric violence in California more than 1,500 years ago

TULE RAFTS ON SAN FRANCISCO BAY. Credit: California Missions Resource Center.

TULE RAFTS ON SAN FRANCISCO BAY. Credit: California Missions Resource Center.

I was always bugged by the fact that history in school seemed like a huge lesson about human violence. Compared to wars, the topics covering humanity’s landmark achievements like the invention of concrete or the microscope were a disheartening minority. Biases aside, we seem a species that seems not only immensely fascinated by war but heavily involved in it — up until the last century at least.

With this in mind, why do people kill each other? That may seem like an odd question but despite the numerous hypotheses, from those that posit natural selection rewards the aggressive to ethnic feud,  few are verifiable. Mark Allen, professor of anthropology at Cal Poly Pomona, published a recent study that hints a clear explanation for why people kill each other is resource scarcity. He and colleagues analyzed lethal trauma among hunter-gatherer populations in prehistoric central California to reach this conclusion.

This was a very challenging research because North American tribes didn’t keep written records, so the researchers looked for empirical evidence of trauma and the density of occurrence.

“You have to have something significant,” Allen said. “You have to have good evidence. As archeologists, you don’t get the data you want most of the time. We are typically dealing with fragmented evidence.”

The team used an archaeological database of human remains from Central California which covered thousands of burials, some going back more than 1,500 years. Allen and colleagues systematically looked at every burial for signs of physical trauma, whether it was bashed skull, broken or cut bones. They then made a map which also looked at the way communities were socially organized.

California used to be a very cosmopolitan region being home to a staggering 100 different languages. Interestingly, the data shows a correlation between resource scarcity and violence. That might seem obvious but what’s to be noted is that it was ultimately resource scarcity that could predict high homicide rates, not some political organization.

“When people are stressed out and worried about protecting the group, they are willing to be aggressive,” he says. “Violence is about resources for the group.”

Understanding what make people kill each is the first but also the most important step to making sure it doesn’t happen.  “If we want to reduce conflict, we need to figure out what to do about resource stress,” Allen says.

“Blunt force cranial trauma shows no correlation with NPP or political complexity and may reflect a different form of close contact violence. This study provides no support for the position that violence originated with the development of more complex hunter-gatherer adaptations in the fairly recent past. Instead, findings show that individuals are prone to violence in times and places of resource scarcity,” the researchers conclude in the journal PNAS.

Violence might be deeply embedded in our genes, study finds

Hardcore violence is a feature passed on in primate lineage for millions of years, inherited by humans over the course of our evolution.

Violence can emerge even in peaceful bonobo communities. Image credits: San Diego Zoo.

Seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wondered whether humans are inherently violent, as did Jean-Jacques Rousseau and countless social scientists after that. Violent behavior directed towards members of the same species is not uncommon for primates, but it is virtually unheard of in other intelligent species such as whales. So where does that leave us?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that almost everything we learn is cultural, it’s modeled by our surrounding environment. But researchers have found it extremely difficult to separate the evolutionary from the sociological traits.

If they want to assess a certain trait of a species, biologists commonly study the history of the species’ biological evolution, reconstructing probably ancestral features. José María Gómez from the Universidad de Granada in Spain assessed the level of lethal violence in 1,024 mammal species from 137 taxonomic families and in about 600 human populations, ranging from about 50,000 years ago to the present.

They compared how many instances of violence were lethal in mammalian species to the same instances in prehistoric humans, using phylogenetic models to make predictions as well as readily available data. Their comparison revealed a similar figure: 2%. In other words, 1 in 50 fatalities was caused by violence.

“Humans emerged from an evolutionary lineage with a long history of higher-than-average levels of lethal violence towards members of the same species,” the study writes. Even so, followers of Rousseau might step in to say that our species’ figure of 2% tells us nothing about our innate tendencies; it might merely reflect a calculated or environmentally induced response to the environments in which early humans lived.”

But this doesn’t mean that we’re meant to be violence, because as Rousseau believed, culture also has a huge impact on us. Even though 1 in 50 prehistoric fatalities might have been violent, today we really don’t see that kind of violence.

“But societies can also modify our innate tendencies. Rates of homicide in modern societies that have police forces, legal systems, prisons and strong cultural attitudes that reject violence are, at less than 1 in 10,000 deaths (or .01%), about 200 times lower than the authors’ predictions for our state of nature. Hobbes has landed a serious blow on Rousseau, but not quite knocked him out.”

Online paper: http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature19758


Machine learning could solve the US’s police violence issue

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department of North Carolina is piloting a new machine-learning system which it hopes will combat the rise of police violence. Police brutality has been a growing issue in US in recent years.

The system combs through the police’s staff records to identify officers with a high risk of causing “adverse events” — such as racial profiling or unwarranted shootings.

Image credits Jagz Mario / Flickr.

A University of Chicago team is helping the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD keep an eye on their police officers, and prevent cases of police violence. The team feeds data from the police’s staff records into a machine learning system that tries to spot risk factors for unprofessional conduct. Once a high-risk individual is identified, the department steps in to prevent any actual harm at the hands of the officer.

Officers are people too, and they can be subjected to a lot of stress in their line of work. The system is meant to single out officers who might behave aggressively under stress. All the information on an individual’s record — details of previous misconduct, gun use, their deployment history, how many suicide or domestic violence calls they have responded to, et cetera — is fed into the system. The idea is to prevent incidents in which officers who are stressed can behave aggressively, such as the case in Texas where an officer pulled his gun on children at a pool party after responding to two suicide calls earlier that shift.

“Right now the systems that claim to do this end up flagging the majority of officers,” says Rayid Ghani, who leads the Chicago team. “You can’t really intervene then.”

But so far, the system had some pretty impressive results. It retrospectively flagged 48 out of 83 adverse incidents that happened between 2005 and now – 12 per cent more than Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s existing early intervention system. It had a false positive rate – officers flagged as having a high risk by the system that didn’t behave aggressively – was 32 per cent lower than the existing systems.

Ghani’s team is currently testing the system with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Knoxville Police Department in Tennessee. They will present the results of their pilot system at the International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining in San Francisco later this month.

So the system works, but exactly what should be done after an official has been flagged as a potential risk is still up for debate. The team is still working with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to find the best solution.

“The most appropriate intervention to prevent misconduct by an officer could be a training course, a discussion with a manager or changing their beat for a week,” Ghani adds.

Whatever the best course of action is, Ghani is confident that it should be implemented by humans, not a computer system.

Or adorable toy police cars, at least.
Image via pixabay

“I would not want any of those to be automated,” he says. “As long as there is a human in the middle starting a conversation with them, we’re reducing the chance for things to go wrong.”

Frank Pasquale, who studies the social impact of algorithms at the University of Maryland, is cautiously optimistic.

“In many walks of life I think this algorithmic ranking of workers has gone too far – it troubles me,” he says. “But in the context of the police, I think it could work.”

He believes that while such a system for tackling police misconduct is new, it’s likely that older systems created the problem in the first place.

“The people behind this are going to say it’s all new,” he says. “But it could be seen as an effort to correct an earlier algorithmic failure. A lot of people say that the reason you have so much contact between minorities and police is because the CompStat system was rewarding officers who got the most arrests.”

CompStat, short for Computer Statistics, is a police management and accountability system, used to implement the “broken windows” theory of policing — the idea that punishing minor infractions like public drinking and vandalism severely helps create an atmosphere of law and order, and will thus bring down serious crime. Many police researchers have suggested that the approach has led to the current dangerous tension between police and minority communities.

Pasquale warns that the University of Chicago system is not infallible. Just like any other system, it’s going to suffer from biased data — for example, a black police officer in a white community will likely get more complaints than a white colleague, he says, because the police can be subject to racism, too. Giving officers some channel to seek redress will be important.

“This can’t just be an automatic number cruncher.”

Video gamers’ aggression linked to frustration, not violent games

Video games have been getting more and more attention, partly due the fact that more and more children (and adults) are playing them, and partly due to the fact that some advantages of playing them are starting to surface. Now, a new study has shown that gamers’ hostile behavior is linked to the experience of failure and frustration during play – not necessarily the game’s content.

credit: Steven Andrew, flickr, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0

Games such as Grand Theft Auto get a lot of bad rep – and for good reason. You walk around, get in a car, run people over, chainsaw them, shoot them, hang out with prostitutes – you get the point. It’s not exactly what you’d want your kid to play. Naturally, many have claimed that due to the violent nature of the games, children tend to grow up to be more violent as well; that sounds like a fair assumption, but is it actually true?

This study is the first to look at the player’s psychological experience with video games instead of focusing solely on its content. They found that failure to master a game, getting stuck and/or losing over and over again led to frustration and aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not. I know it doesn’t have any scientific relevance, but personally, I can confirm that.

“Any player who has thrown down a remote control after losing an electronic game can relate to the intense feelings or anger failure can cause,” explains lead author Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, who said such frustration is commonly known among gamers as “rage-quitting.”

“Rage-quitting” is when you get so annoyed and angry with the game that you instantly quit it, regardless of playing alone or with other people. But as it turns out, this experience is not really limited to video games – it happens in all types of games and sports.

“When people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game, that leads to aggression,” says Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University of Rochester. “We saw that in our experiments. If you press someone’s competencies, they’ll become more aggressive, and our effects held up whether the games were violent or not.”

To test the degree to which this happens, researchers manipulated the interface, controls, and degree of difficulty in custom-designed video games across six lab experiments. Some games were violent, some weren’t. For example, in one experiment, undergraduates held their hand in a bowl of painfully cold water for 25 seconds. They were told that the duration was established by a previous student. They were then randomly assigned to play a simple or a very difficult version of tetris and then assign the duration for the next student. Undergrads who played the difficult version assigned on average 10 seconds more of chilled water pain.

The results were conclusive – it’s not the violent nature of the game which causes violent and aggressive behavior, it’s the frustration it induces. Scientists also surveyed 300 avid gamers to identify how real world gamers might experience the same phenomena. When asked about pre- and post-game feelings, gamers replied that their inability to master a game or its controls caused feelings of frustration and affected their sense of enjoyment in the experience. Just as a sidenote – this isn’t to say that violent games are good, or that they don’t have any negative repercussions – just that they don’t generally cause violent or aggressive behavior.

Police investigating the shooting site of nuclear-engineering head Roberto Adinolfi, later confirmed to have been attacked by Olga Cell of the Informal Anarchist Federation International Revolutionary Front. (c) P. RATTINI/AFP/GETTY

Anarchy vs Science: international extremist groups violently attack scientists in the name of humanity

Fed by ignorance, hypocrisy and frustration, members of an international group of eco-anarchist have, during the past few years, plotted and attacked various scientific facilities and scientists alike, injuring many in their attempts and seeding fear, in an anti-technology and science ploy. The violent attacks were self-attributed by the various organisations working in close tandem, which are always sure to attach a letter of some sort describing their motivations in anti-science rhetoric, which along the lines reads as: “science and technology has slaved us and is pushing towards our imminent destruction, and we need to be liberated.”

In an editorial for Nature, high-energy particle physicists Gerardo Herrera Corra details how he dodged an attack from behalf of the organisation, and how his brother  Armando Herrera Corral, director of the technology park at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico, along with friend and colleague Alejandro Aceves López, opened a package which contained a trigger bomb, masked as a an award for his personal attention. Luckily no one was killed, although both sustained serious injuries and burns.

The extremist eco-terrorist organization, is called Individuals Tending to Savagery (ITS), have claimed responsibility for the attacks in Mexico, threatening more attacks of the likes will follow. According to the organization, their main targets are nano­technology and computer scientists, since “nanotechnology will lead to the downfall of mankind, and predicts that the world will become dominated by self-aware artificial-intelligence technology.” The organization is seeking attention and to inflict terror among scientific institutions. “If this does not get to the newspapers we will produce more explosions. Wounding or killing teachers and students does not matter to us.”

Only last week, in Bristol, another group, which goes by the name of Informal Anarchist Federation, claimed responsibility for two attacks on railway signalling which caused severe delays and the cancellation of services to disrupt employees of the Ministry of Defense. The same organization has claimed responsibility for the non-fatal shooting of a nuclear-engineering executive on 7 May in Genoa, Italy. The same group has sent death threats to a Swiss pro-nuclear lobby group in 2011 and attempted to bomb one of the world’s leading research facilities, IBM’s nanotechnology laboratory in Switzerland in 2010. The IAF is in close relations with the ITS.

The man shot was  Roberto Adinolfi, the chief executive of Ansaldo Nucleare, the nuclear-engineering subsidiary of aerospace and defence giant Finmeccanica. Shortly after the violent event, a four page manifesto was sent for publishing to the Italian newspaper  Corriere della Sera. Among other things, it reads Adinolfi is a “sorcerer of the atom”, it wrote. “Adinolfi knows well that it is only a matter of time before a European Fukushima kills on our continent.”

“Science in centuries past promised us a golden age, but it is pushing us towards self-destruction and total slavery,” the letter continues. “With this action of ours, we return to you a tiny part of the suffering that you, man of science, are pouring into this world.” The group also threatened to carry out further attacks.

The cell says that it is uniting with eco-anarchist groups in other countries, including Mexico, Chile, Greece and the United Kingdom, which I find very curious. Obviously, these organizations are closely networking with one another, and something tells me that it’s not through smoke signals. Something also tends to make me believe that the members of these organizations don’t grow their own food, or ride horses, live in caves or even believe the world is flat. They appreciate science in many respects, albeit at an unconscious level, and for one they love science for teaching them how to build bombs. Again, hypocrisy in tandem with deep and utter ignorance, fueled by personal, petty frustrations.

In the wake of these attacks most major scientific institutions have significantly stepped out their security, and in Italy, where the must blunted attacks were carried out, the Ministry of the Interior has assigned bodyguards for 550 key scientific personalities.

I’d like to paraphrase Dr.  Gerardo Herrera Corra, which perfectly explains why these anarchist attacks are so fundamentally poorly directed, besides anti-humanitarian to begin with.

“To oppose technology is not an unacceptable way to think. We may well debate the desirability of further technical development in our society. Yet radical groups such as the ITS overlook a crucial detail: it is not technology that is the problem, but how we use it. After Alfred Nobel invented dynamite he became a rich man, because it found use in mining, quarrying, construction and demolition. But people can also decide to put dynamite into a parcel and address it to somebody with the intention of killing them. “

Kill your TV…. before it kills you

televisionWe’ve heard of a lot of dangers that the television brings, including obesity, violence, teen pregnancy and eye problems, but now, a recent study shows long periods of watching television can cause a significant increase of health problems. So not only will your TV hurt your eyes, make you fat and violent, but it will also kill you, eventually – man’s best friend indeed.

After tracking almost 9000 people for six years, Australian researchers found that people who watch TV for more than 4 hours a day are “46 percent more likely to die of any cause and 80 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than people who reported spending less than two hours a day”.

Also, the big problem is that exercising won’t help too much with this problem. Even if you exercise daily, prolonged sedimentary periods cause problems that are extremely hard to be undone. Put simply, you really should avoid long periods of sitting, even if you’re doing something else (most people sit while watching TV though).

Not the kill, but the thrill is what video game players love

Worried about friends who immerse themselves into violent video games all day long? Well, stop fearing they may turn into blood-thirsty maniacs (but you can keep worrying about their addiction) because, as researchers have discovered, it is not the gore details that cause one to play for endless hours, but the feeling of overcoming a challenge offered by the games.

A new study conducted by the University of Rochester and Immersyve Inc., a firm specialized in player-experience research shows that scenes of carnage do not make games more fun, but even take away some of the pleasure of the experience, thus decreasing the players’ interest into buying a particular game. What makes them interested is the sense of autonomy, the challenge itself and the numerous obstacles that have to be overcome by using special skills and developing strategies. Apparently, conflicts and wars can provide all these to a player, which has lead to the creation of so many games related to them.

As Andrew Przybylski explained, only a small percentage of video game players actually enjoy extreme violence in games and they belong to a separate category, characterized by a higher level of aggressiveness. But even these people claim not to draw too much pleasure from gruesome scenes. So, is it all just an innocent game?

Two survey studies were conducted to find out the answer. Firstly, 2670 enthusiast players between 18 and 39 years old out of which 89 percent men, were asked to describe their favorite video games by using statements like “I would definitely buy the sequel” or “While I’m moving in the game world I feel like I am really there.” What the survey was meant to assess is the level of enjoyment, immersion and satisfaction of the gamers along with their needs.

More studies were conducted, involving 300 undergraduates who were used as subjects in order to assess what the effects of playing violent games really were. Violent and blood-free versions of the same game, Half-Life 2, were used in the first phase, while House of the Dead III was used in the second phase with different gore levels, from no blood at all to the most horrendous things one could think of.

A fourth study was aimed as analyzing the subjects’ aggressive nature by using items related to physical violence directed towards others and their level of hostility. After that, the students played the most violent version of House of the Dead III.

All experiments and studies have shown that violence was not at all the factor which caused enjoyment, but the other way around. The most aggressive subjects seemed to be the ones to prefer the highly-violent games, but not to enjoy them more.

These results free companies to design away from the extremely-violent content, also allowing them to broaden their range of games. Their main purpose is to be entertaining and challenging and this is why both the healthy and the unhealthy aspects of playing them should be studied so that they could reach this goal.
source: The University of Rochester