Violence is rare and commonly occurs due to confusion and helplessness

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

Anne Nassauer — Assistant Professor of Sociology at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin — notes that video surveillance footage shows how rare violence really is:

Today, videos from closed-circuit television, body cameras, police dash cameras, or mobile phones are increasingly used in the social sciences. For lack of other data, researchers previously relied on people’s often vague, partial, and biased recollections to understand how violence happened. Now, video footage shows researchers second-to-second how an event unfolded, who did what, was standing where, communicating with whom, and displaying which emotions, before violence broke out or a criminal event occurred. And while we would assume such footage highlights the cruel, brutal, savage nature of humanity, looking at violence up-close actually shows the opposite. Examining footage of violent situations – from the very cameras set up because we believe that violence lurks around every corner – suggests violence is rare and commonly occurs due to confusion and helplessness, rather than anger and hate.

Armed robberies are an example in point. We would assume robbers to resort to violence if clerks fail to hand over what is in the register; after all, that is the fundamental proposition of the situation. Instead, video surveillance shows that robbers become afraid of the unexpected situation they are in and run away. It shows that criminals, like most people, rely on situational routines that offer familiarity and reassurance. In my research of surveillance footage of robberies clerks laughed at a robber’s assault rifle, and robbers, rather than shooting or hitting the victim, were startled and gave up. When a robber showed slight gloominess, a clerk cheered him up and the robber became even sadder, discussed his financial problems with the clerk and left. If clerks treat robbers like a child, surveillance footage shows how robbers may react according to this role and become hesitant and plead to be taken seriously. This means even in an armed robbery, where perpetrators are prepared and committed to the crime and clerks usually fear for their lives, robbers as well as clerks tend to make sense out of the situation together, avoid violence and get into shared rhythms and routines.

We can see similar patterns when looking at video recordings of protest violence and violent uprisings. In some protest marches, certain groups attend with the clear goal to use violence; they mask up and come prepared with stones to throw at police. In other protests, police decided on a zero-tolerance strategy and plan to use force at the slightest misstep by activists. Despite such preparations for and willingness to use violent means, violence rarely actually breaks out, and people usually engage in peaceful interactions. If violence does erupt, we see that it does so not because people are violent or cruel, but because routine interactions break down, which leads to confusion, distress, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, and ultimately violent altercations.

Similarly, research on street fights, or mass shootings shows that most people that have the will to fight and kill are actually bad at “doing” violence –as are the great majority of humans. Only very few people in very specific situations manage to be violent effectively, and it is those outliers that make it to the news. Contrary to common belief, rates of violence and crime have never been as low in most Western countries, as they are today.

Such findings have implications; fear of people’s cruel nature and violence lurking around every corner perpetuate everyday actions, drive voting behavior, and impact policymaking through worst-case-scenario thinking. Fearing fellow humans as inherently violent and cruel not only lacks empirical grounding, but research also shows it leads people to make bad decisions. Surveillance videos and recent research on violence challenge this notion that we need to fear each other. They counter the idea that we need elaborate protection from each other and constant state surveillance, which not only tends to cost public funds but also often curtails civil and human rights (e.g., privacy, free speech, free movement, right of asylum). The optimistic outlook offered by scientific analyses of videos might mean we can spend our time more wisely; instead of fearing each other and investing time and resources to protect ourselves from exaggerated dangers, we could enjoy society and our remaining civil rights and freedoms a little more.

Randall Collins (The Sociological Eye), whom she cites, makes similar points in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.


  1. Ezra says:

    “In my research of surveillance footage of robberies clerks laughed at a robber’s assault rifle, and robbers, rather than shooting or hitting the victim, were startled and gave up.”

    The criminal is much analogous to the predator animal in the wild. They are seeking the easy mark who cannot offer resistance of any sort. Many career criminals are latent cowards. You can tell a lot about a criminal by knowing what sort of persons they victimize.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Predators prey on the weak because preying on the strong would be really stupid.

    Do what works shall be the whole of the law.

  3. Graham says:

    I gather there are many localized exceptions, whether short term, specific area, or specific type of crime, but agreed, violent crime is down and has been declining across North America for 25 years.

    So on one hand, no need to get all 1980s about “rising crime” overall. On the other, a few points.

    That doesn’t mean we live in Candyland. Don’t be panicked, don’t wander around like a noob or expect to do so. Even I’m not that complacent. Though there wouldn’t be much I could do if deterrence fails other than at least try to make it hurt.

    There may continue to be exceptions to the trend.

    It may still not be down to the levels considered normal before the great rise of the 1960s. So criminologists might not want to try pulling a snow job just yet.

    There are many who remember the widespread denials of rising crime of the 60s, or the rejection [denial would have been too blatant by then, perhaps] of its seriousness in the 80s. Don’t expect trust.

    The frequency or raw numbers of any particular crime are not dispositive of how harshly any instance of it should be punished.

    I gather that overall, “gun violence” is also down. This is widely unacknowledged by the same crowd that is otherwise aware of declining crime.

    My native city, Toronto, in recent years has had many more shootings than it once did, apparently, and stabbings too. I do not know to what degree this is genuine rather than an artifact of reporting more for sensationalist reasons, reporting more because most of the participants and victims are people we didn’t care about 30 years ago but now ostensibly do so media covers the stories more, or what. But my usual thought when hearing of one is, were any regular people involved? The answer isn’t always no, but it usually is.

  4. Graham says:

    As to the specific comments cited from the report-

    I am not sure always how to read the mindsets of these scholars. When I think of the “cruel, brutal, savage nature of humanity” I think of it as a baseline condition that has rarely come to full fruition in any individual, and does so much less frequently in rich societies in which even small time crooks and beggars can often get buy without violence. Your average conservatively inclined philosopher, or even Hobbes, probably doesn’t expect many humans to ever be drooling, club wielding, blood dripping orcs either.

    On the other hand, that’s not what we mean. It’s just that we have a more balanced view of what humans are capable of when pushed, even ourselves. Yes, there are limits for most when no training or life-conditioning has been involved. But most people in societies like ours are never getting pushed to the edge, either. Not really.

    Plus I’ve seen a few men on the street even in my tame city that I don’t want to be within 50 yards of on a bad day.

    And I can’t imagine anyone familiar with generations of true crime news and police procedurals can be unfamiliar with the idea that most criminals are cowards or stupid or both. Entire genres are built on that idea. It’s an openly stated premise of Batman comics going back to their origin in the 1930s, which makes sense since it is also a noir culture premise. Can social scientists just be discovering this now?

    Or is it all just part of this weird mentality that can only fathom the desire to punish crime [or kick out illegals or anything else in immigration policy] as “fear”? I cannot understand that way of thinking.

    Now, if they just want to tackle the idea that kids are in constant peril going to and from the park and cannot be unleashed, then fine. That’s too much moral panic.

  5. Kirk says:

    What I love about all this is how we have researchers who almost certainly came out of virtually violence-free milieus trying to understand “violence” via what they can glean from random samples picked up on video surveillance systems–And, they think they’re going to find profound insights into the nature of “violence”.

    What they ought to be doing is examining prison video surveillance footage, and working from there. If you examine only the mean, you’re inevitably going to reach the conclusion that the “average person” is just not very good at violence. However, comma, that’s an awful lot like looking at forest game camera footage, looking at all the animals seen on it, and then concluding that because the average forest-dwelling animal is not very good at violence, they all aren’t. Which is an analysis that breaks down about the time you start making a detailed examination of wolves, bears, wolverines, and other actual, y’know… Predators. The fact that a shrew is a lousy ambush predator on deer has nothing to do with the risk posed to deer by that wolf over there, which is something that the “researcher” in this study seems to have missed out on.

    By and large, the average robber of a convenience store is an inept idiot who has no clue about what they’re doing, and who will likely back down in the face of the unscripted and unexpected. There are more than a few, however, who will simply shoot the clerk and walk out.

    No, these idiots are basically making a fundamental classification error, thinking that because one human looks much like another, that they’re all alike. That guy in the hoody over there may be an inept tyro who will walk out of the store when the clerk insists on him providing ID to steal a beer, but that other guy in the hoody that’s walking into that other convenience store…? He, on the other hand, may well be a stone-cold killer with no social restraints whatsoever, and he’s going to rob, rape, and kill that clerk with about as much empathy for the clerk as your average Great White has for a tuna.

    You want to know about violence, don’t go talking to some dipsh*t academic about it, because they’re going to miss 99.9% of the reality of things. Instead, talk to someone who lives in that “world of ferals” every damn day, and they’ll tell you what is what.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    “Average” is a word people use to avoid thinking about the differences between things. Also, any formulation along the lines of “well, that’s just them…” or “most regular people…”

    Most criminals are stupid. So are most non-criminals. So what? Shall we ignore the criminal masterminds? The Pareto distribution?

    The thing about prisons is they have a much higher proportion of criminals than the general population. That’s bound to make a difference. And even the general population isn’t the same everywhere. There are good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods.

    Someone who lives in the world of ferals can tell you all about the world of ferals, but he can’t tell you anything about what it’s like in a less dysfunctional subculture. “What is what” is entirely dependent on context: what is what, where?

  7. Kirk says:

    Which is my main point… You make a general rule about violence based on the majority of ineffectually violent people out there, and what you’re going to find when you go to apply your general rule to what we might term the “effectually violent”, the competent ones, and you’re gonna be in for bit of a treat.

    You have your fascist regimes like the ones in Italy, Argentina (which had/has a strong thread of Italian immigration, oddly enough…), Venezuela, and all the other Latin incompentencies. Then, you have Germany and the Nazis. Which is the one you want to look at, when evaluating the dangers of fascism?

    Not that the Nazis were particularly competent, either, just that when you coupled that regime with the remarkably effective German war machine built by the Prussians, well… You get much different results when the whole shoddy edifice comes crashing down. I’m sure that if Maduro had the Wehrmacht at his beck and call, he’d be using it. As is, all he’s got are a bunch of Cubans and what is left of the laughably incompetent Venezuelan military–So, he won’t be invading Poland or France to cover up his stupidity at “managing” an economy.

    Whole point is that these academidiots are trying to extrapolate things off of non-existent fantasy evidence that simply are not true or even remotely close to being actually relevant. It’s like looking at the average modern male, seeing that he’s relatively non-violent or abusive, and then somehow theorizing that men like Richard Ramirez are not possible. You can’t spread the general out to cover the specific, and then be able to make judgments about what the specific case is going to do.

    Hell, I wager that there’s a good chance that there are a lot of conforming “socially respectable” males out there who would do things completely at odds with how they behave within context, were you to pull them out of that context and put them into a situation where they think the rules no longer apply or can be enforced. Which is where a lot of these idiot researchers go wrong–They think we can relax enforcement, ‘cos people are really, truly good deep down in their natural state. Reality is, we’re all slackers, and if the rules and their enforcers were gone…? I don’t think that a lot of us would continue to conform. Take away Principal Strickland, and I fear that most of us would tend to deviate back towards that ancient state of nature, red in tooth and claw.

    Hell, I’m not even sure I would continue to conform, TBH. I like to think I would, but… Ya know? I’m just not sure what the truly unconstrained “Kirk” would do, in a lot of hypothetical situations.

    And, knowing that? I’m not a fan of returning to a state of “natural savagery”, no matter what Rousseau might have thought of such a thing.

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