Aggression vs. Altruism: Crash Course Psychology #40


Transcript Provided by YouTube:

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Let me tell you about Robber’s Cave. In 1954, a group of 11 boys, all about 12 years old,
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were invited to a special summer camp in the deep woods of southeastern Oklahoma, at a
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place called Robber’s Cave State Park. None of the boys knew each other, although they
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all came from similar backgrounds. They spent their days bonding over things like games
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and swimming and treasure hunts, and in no time, they formed a tight friendly group.
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They even came up with a name for themselves: the Rattlers.
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But soon they began to notice something. No, not a guy in the woods with a hockey mask,
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there was another group of boys also 11 of them, also the same age, that had been staying
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at the other end of the park the whole time. The Rattlers never interacted with these other
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boys, so they didn’t know that those kids were also spending time bonding over games
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and swimming and treasure hunts, and that they’d come up with a name for themselves,
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too: the Eagles. But the Rattlers didn’t like the look of the Eagles, oh, no, they didn’t
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like them using their baseball diamond or their dining hall.
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And the feeling was mutual. It didn’t take long for each group to start complaining to
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the camp’s counselors about the other gang, and eventually, they both said that they wanted
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to set up a contest to determine once and for all which group was better. The counselors
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were only too happy to comply, because as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, those
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counselors were actually researchers.
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The man who set up what would be remembered as the Robber’s Cave Experiment was Turkish
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American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif. He was interested in what it would take for
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rivals to overcome their differences and resolve their conflicts. Specifically, Sherif wanted
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to test something called Realistic Conflict Theory. He hypothesized that conflict happens
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when you combine negative prejudices with competition over resources, and the boys at
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Robber’s Cave were well on their way to proving him right.
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Over the next couple of days, the Rattlers and the Eagles competed against each other
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for prizes in a series of games, like tug-of-war and foot races, and soon, what started as
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your basic trash talking and taunting and name-calling morphed into fist-fights, thefts,
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and raids on each others’ cabins. But then their dynamics changed or were changed for them.
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After the games were over, the researchers integrated the groups and gave the kids shared
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goals that they could only achieve through cooperation. The tide quickly turned. All
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22 boys worked together to move a stalled truck that was carrying their food, they took
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care of a partially felled tree that was deemed a danger to the camp, they collaborated in
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setting up tents, even though they weren’t given complete sets of equipment. While isolation
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and competition made enemies of the strangers, shared goals and cooperation turned enemies into friends.
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Over the past 39 weeks, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves, our emotions and our personalities,
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how our minds can get sick, how we can help them get well again, why we can do vicious
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things and then turn around and act like heroes. So maybe it’s fitting that we wrap up this
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course by looking at a couple of opposing forces that some consider the very definition
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of human nature: aggression and altruism. Conflict and cooperation. You might think
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of it as the psychology of war and peace, or simply, what we can all learn from a bunch of 12 year olds.
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In psychology, aggression is defined as “behavior intended to hurt or destroy someone, something,
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or even yourself.” People aggress, as psychologists say, in all kinds of ways, verbally, emotionally,
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and physically, and for lots of different reasons: out of anger, to assert dominance,
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or as a response to fear. But that’s just a glimpse into why someone might become aggressive.
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Where does the aggression actually come from?
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Like a lot of behaviors we’ve talked about it, it seems to emerge from that familiar
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combination of biological factors, like genetic, neurological, and biochemical influences,
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and our environment and experience. In terms of genetic influences, studies of twins, and
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yes, Crash Course Psychology might have been called Crash Course Studies of Twins, showed
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that if one identical twin has a violent temper, often the other one does, too, but fraternal
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twins are much less likely to be so similar.
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Neurologically speaking, no single area of the brain controls aggression, but certain
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areas like the limbic system do appear to facilitate it. Research on violence and criminality
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has also revealed a link between aggression and diminished activity in the frontal lobes,
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which play a vital role in impulse control.
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And finally, our aggressiveness can be influenced by our own biochemistry, hormones like testosterone
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and glucocorticoids and pheromones have all been implicated in animal models of aggression.
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It’s a little trickier in humans, it’s a lot trickier in humans, but it’s highly likely
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that our hormones are intimately linked with feeling and showing aggression.
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Obviously, aggression isn’t just about biology. Psychological and cultural factors also play
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an important role, as does the power of the situation. For example, there’s the Frustration-Aggression
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Hypothesis, the simple idea that people become aggressive when they’re blocked from reaching
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a goal. To demonstrate, consider the not-very aggressive sport of baseball. There’s a study
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that analyzed 44 years worth of baseball stats, and focused on the more than 27,000 incidents
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when a pitcher hit a batter with a ball. It turned out that this was most likely to occur
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if the pitcher was frustrated by a recent home run or if one of his own teammates had
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been hit by a pitch in the previous inning.
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But we also learn aggression by watching others. Like, if you grew up watching your parents
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throw popcorn and jeering lewdly at their most hated soccer team, you might have learned
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something from their behavior. So combine all of those biological factors and funnel
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them through a particular person with a particular history in a particular situation, and you
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can begin to see how aggression can have many roots that grow together.
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Thankfully, though, humans are more than their bad tempers. While some things in people will
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leave us annoyed and angry, others breed friendship and affection. So yes, there are positive
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topics in social psychology, like altruism, our selfless, even self-sacrificing regard
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for the welfare of others. This could be something as simple as jumpstarting a stranger’s car
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or as heroic as running into a burning building to save someone. But if being altruistic is
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so awesome, why aren’t we all that way all the time? Or maybe the better question is,
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why do we ever do anything selfless, like, what’s in it for us?
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In the late 1960s, social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted a series
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of experiments examining when and why we help others. In one experiment, they placed a subject
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in a room, sometimes alone, sometimes with two other subjects, and sometimes with two
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actors posing as subjects. Then, they simulated an emergency by filling the room with smoke
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and waited to see if the subject would do anything to alert the others or help themselves.
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If the subject was alone, they’d report the smoke 75% of the time. But subjects in a group
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of three only spoke up 38% of the time. And when they were stuck in the room with two
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oblivious actors, only 10% of the participants said anything to the others. Darley and Latane
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found that people typically helped others only if they noticed the incident, interpreted
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it as an emergency, and then finally, assumed responsibility, and all of these things were
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much more likely to occur if a person was alone, while the presence of others deterred
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the person from helping.
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This kind of diffusion of responsibility referred to as the bystander effect, can weaken our
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instinct for altruism. The bystander effect is a bit like the concept of social loafing
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that we talked about. If you’re around other people, it’s easier to think that someone
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else is going to pick up the slack or in this case, come to the rescue.
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When people do decide to help others, they may do it for a number of reasons. One perspective
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is that we tend to help others mainly out of self-interest. By this thinking, helping
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really isn’t altruistic at all, and instead, our actions boil down to a sort of cost-benefit
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analysis. Like, maybe we’d turn in a lost wallet because we’re hoping for a reward or
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we pitch in on a project at work because we think we’ll get recognized and promoted by
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our bosses. Social psychologists contextualize these kinds of examples in the broader theory
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of social exchange. When it comes to doing things for other people, we’re always trying
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to maximize our personal rewards while minimizing our costs. But social exchange doesn’t have
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to be as selfish as that, it can also mean that we act altruistically because we expect
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that the people we help will go on to help others, so if we give someone a hand changing
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a tire, maybe they’ll stop next time they see someone else, maybe even us, broken down
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on the side of the road. You might know this concept, sometimes it’s called the norm of
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reciprocity, sometimes it’s called paying it forward.
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And then there’s the social responsibility norm, which is the simple expectation that
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people will help those who depend on them, like any parent can expect to give more help
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than they’re going to receive from young children. That’s just part of being a parent. Naturally,
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the world would be a delightful place if altruism were the standard for human behavior, but
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then, psychology wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.
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In some ways, you might say that what fuels conflict is the opposite of altruism: self-interest.
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Social psychologists view conflict as any perceived incompatibility of actions, goals,
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or ideas. That could mean two nations fighting over a border, sparring religious or political
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groups, or you and your boo fighting over whose turn it is to do the dishes.
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And in a weird conundrum of human behavior a lot of conflicts arise from what psychologists
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call “a social trap,” where people act in their own short term self-interest, even though
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it takes a toll on the larger group and on themselves over the long-term. You see this
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kind of thing all the time on an individual scale, like in a crime movie, when a criminal
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just betrays all of his criminal friends to get the big payout, it doesn’t turn out very
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well for him in the end. But on a larger scale, you can find social traps taking their toll
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on the environment, like when we poach elephants to sell their ivory or cut down old growth
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forests to make a quick buck in the lumber market. Either way, when self-interest succeeds
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in wrecking the collective interest by, say, depleting some limited resource, it becomes
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easy to start viewing our neighbors as competitors, taking us right back to the ingroup vs. outgroup
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mindset that we all know causes big problems.
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So as long as there’s self interest, there’s gonna be conflict.
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But before you get all down on humanity, remember those Robber’s Cave boys. They were ready
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to go full-on Lord of the Flies before shared goals forced them to cooperate and ultimately,
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make peace. The power of cooperation to make friends of former enemies is one of the most
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hopeful areas of psychological research. If greed and self-interest can destroy the world,
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perhaps cooperation can save it.
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Today, you learned about the Robber’s Cave experiment and what it taught us about realistic
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conflict theory and how shared goals can overcome conflict. We looked at the physical and environmental
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triggers of aggression, and the frustration-aggression hypothesis. You also learned about altruism,
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the bystander effect, and when we are more or less likely to help a person in need, and
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also about the social exchange theory, the reciprocity norm, the social responsibility
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norm, and social traps.
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Thanks for watching, especially to all of our Subbable subscribers who make Crash Course
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possible. To find out how you can become a supporter, just go to Subbable.com, and please
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remember to go to YouTube.com/CrashCourse and subscribe for more future Crash Courses
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in the future.
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This episode was written by Kathleen Yale, edited by Blake de Pastino, and our consultant
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is Dr. Ranjit Bhagwat. Our director and editor is Nicholas Jenkins, the script supervisor
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and sound designer is Michael Aranda, and the graphics team is Thought Cafe.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video.