I have pondered long and hard for many years about the questions of anger, violence and the human longing for world peace.
Last week I came upon the most extraordinary piece of research that added something really spectacular to my understanding. Before I get to that I want to share with you my conclusions developed over time as to why we get angry and violent and why we live in a world so prone to starting wars.
- People get angry in order to protect themselves. It’s a biological imperative called survival! If someone comes at you with a knife, aggression is useful as a protective mechanism. If someone attacks you with hostile words and you attack them back, the potential to subdue them with your aggressive words, body language and tone of voice, is increased.
- It’s a great way to let somebody know how important an issue is to you. If somebody is providing you with the service and they are not really paying much attention to you, aggression can be very useful in getting them to jack up their focus. If someone isn’t listening to you and you yell at them to listen better it’s very possible that they will take you more seriously and improve their listening skills.
- It’s a fabulous way to avoid the primary vulnerable emotions of helplessness, hurt, pain, shame and guilt and to simply get angry to cover up these emotions, the expression of which, makes us potentially more vulnerable to attack. This is in fact what I think is the predominant reason for there being so much aggression in interpersonal relationships. We feel vulnerable and helpless in so many ways in our interactions with others but we don’t like acknowledging this vulnerability to ourselves, let alone to others and so aggression is a way of masking this vulnerability, hiding it and denying it and repressing it and then getting them to give us what we want.
- A lot of people use the ‘aggressive willpower’ to get healthy, very successfully, typified by cancer patients visualizing healthy t cells killing cancer cells.
- Aggression is a very useful – if ultimately painful – strategy to enhance Acquired Self-Esteem, the esteem that comes from success and approval. Human beings have a tremendous drive to feel better about themselves. The primary ways of doing this is are to angrily judge oneself to be superior and to win and achieve status. Aggression is a superb method to attain these outcomes, even if they are temporary. Aggression is energized and powerful and it drives focused behavior. Just watch a businessperson or sportsperson driven with the aggressive desire to win.
- Finally, we are filled with fear, desire and greed and when these needs are not met anger is a strategy to get rid of the fear and to increase our chances of getting what we desire.
Google’s Robot Research
The researchers tested the degree of cooperativeness of artificial intelligence – robots.
They ran 40 million turns, statistically somewhat significant, of a simple “fruit gathering” computer game that asks robots to compete against each other to gather as many virtual apples as possible.
All went well until the supply of apples dwindled. Then the robots turned aggressive.
Here’s the kicker.
The more complex the robot’s abilities the more sabotage, greed and aggression set in. The less complex the robots the greater the likelihood for peaceful cooperation.
The more complex robots were able to use more sophisticated tactics and as the researchers noted, “this model shows that some aspect of humanlike behaviour emerged as a product of the environment and learning…”
Maybe their wording is incorrect.
Maybe humans display robot-like behavior!
What this research is added to my understanding is that although obviously many of the emotional reasons for aggression remain valid there is another reason that has nothing to do with emotions.
Robots don’t have emotions, so the aggressive competition was based on something else. The best conclusion I can come up with from this – the researchers do not go into this detail – is that the more sophisticated one’s thinking software the more likely we are to strategise in a sophisticated way and that these strategies are likely to involve aggressive behaviours in order to maximise the outcome of the strategy.
I would like to take this discussion a little further by looking into the behaviour of animals.
A pride of lions goes hunting. They only do this when they are hungry. As soon as their hunger is satisfied they relax in the shade and do nothing.
Google’s research suggests that the reason for this is their undeveloped cerebral cortex. They have a limited ability to think conceptually.
The next conclusion I make from this research is that if we were to increase the lions’s thinking capacity they might start to say the following:
“If we could kill more buck during a hunt than we could eat, then we could optimize our hunting skills better by having to hunt less often and have more leisure time and then of course we could salt the meat and preserve it and build refrigerators, so that it would last longer and we could hunt even less often. Come to think of it we could even sell the excess stock to other predators.
But now we are going to have to protect our stock from marauding jackals and the like and so we are going to have to build a stockade. To protect the stockade we need to learn to make bows and arrows to fight off all other lions who might want to steal our stock. Bows and arrows will leave us less at risk of being injured in fights. If other animals learn to make bows and arrows we can invent guns and cannons and how about gunships…!”
In a nutshell I’m saying that this research suggests that the more sophisticated the organisms thinking apparatus the more we begin to think into the future and to plan and strategize in order to optimize plans and then we are going to want to protect and grow these plans and aggression is one way in which we are going to do it.
What is so fascinating is that in writing this I’m finding myself wanting to inject emotion into the issue, yet Google’s research shows us that it’s not about emotion at all – the robots in their research had no feelings – which raises the seemingly absurd notion that there can be aggressive behaviour – as in the case of the robots – without emotion!
Is your mind boggling as much as mine?
You could of course argue that in the Google experiment the robots were programmed with the potential to knock out their opponent with a laser beam, so that only the potential for aggression was there. But why then did the more sophisticated robots use aggression more than the less sophisticated ones?
You could argue that the fact that the potential for aggression was programmed into the robots implies that it is not improved thinking capacity that caused the aggression but the fact that the robots were programmed with this capacity caused it. But why then did the less sophisticated robots not show this aggression?
I have more questions than answers on this one!
A Final Word
The big question being asked by many scientists and concerned individuals these days is the question of how dangerous artificial intelligence could become. Last year Stephen Hawking issued a warning that artificial intelligence could either be the best or the worst thing ever to happen humanity.
This research suggests that the worst option is a serious possibility.
The movie The Matrix may prove not to be science fiction.