The Social Roots of Violence

Violence is often viewed as an inherent human trait. It can also be significantly shaped by environmental and social contexts. Studies on baboons show that aggression is not solely determined by genetics but is influenced by surroundings and societal structures. These findings show the complex interaction between nature and nurture and question the usefulness of violence in today’s society. 

the full story
01 Violence

During the first winter of World War 1, French and British soldiers were fiercely battling the Germans. But then, on Christmas Day in 1914, they laid down their arms and came together to celebrate. In fact, they became friends for a few days.  So what happened here and where did the violence go?

understanding violence
02 Violence

Violence is a trait shared by many animals, including sapients. It allows us to protect our territory, hunt for food, or dominate others. But it can come at a great cost. Conflicts often leave physical scars and psychological damage. Aggressive people live a more risky life, tend to have fewer social connections, and are exposed to more stress, all of which impact their well-being.

violence in modern societies
03 Violence

In many modern societies violence has lost its appeal. We started innovating, collaborating, and nurturing communities that gave us a sense of belonging. So why is violence still around? 

Some say that humans are violent by design. Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist, developed another theory. He spent 33 years following the same troop of wild Baboons in Kenya. Studying these monkeys that share 94% of our genetic code, he made a puzzling observation.

Sapolsky’s baboon study
04 Violence

Baboons are primates that organize their behavior around hierarchies. Aggression is the norm. Females and “weak” males typically stay home caring for the children, while violent males lead the troop to explore their surroundings. 

Aggressive males’ demise
05 Violence

At one point, the most aggressive males went out to battle another tribe for some food at a garbage dump, which happened to be the source of a tuberculosis outbreak. As a result, many of these violent baboons got sick, and about half of them died.

06 Violence

The new generation of baboons was then raised by females and more gentle males. As the small ones grew up, they became friendlier and less combative. And just 6 years after the incident, the once violent troop was living in peace. 

07 Violence

During the following years, the troop thrived by collaborating. And even when males from other groups joined the peaceful community, they let go of their aggressive sides and adapted to the new lifestyle. As a result, all members exhibited lower levels of stress, were in better health, and had better odds of survival. 

sapolsky’s CONCLUSION
08 Violence

Sapolsky concluded that in Baboons, violence is not a natural state, but mostly a learned response to the environment they grow up in. An idea that also seems to apply to most human behavior.  

behavioral influence complexity
09 Violence

Children observe their parents and imitate what they see at home. When abuse is part of daily lives, it is a behavior that they are likely to reproduce later – and pass it on to their children and so on and so forth. But is it really just that? 

Sapolsky himself later wrote that it’s more complicated: “If we want to make sense of our behavior – all the best, the worst, and everything in between – we’re not going to get anywhere if we think it can all be explained with one thing, whether it’s one part of the brain, one childhood experience, one hormone, one gene, or anything.”

what do you think?
10 Violence

What do you think? Are we violent by design or is it a learned human behavior? Or is it a mix of the two? And if it’s mostly learned, is there a way to break the vicious cycle, or does it always need to come to a disaster? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Dig deeper!

Classroom activity

In this activity students will learn about the the psychology of aggression and transmission of social behaviors 

  • Ask the class in which contexts they produced, experienced or witnessed violent behavior and if they think violence serves a purpose in nature
  • Ask them if in modern societies violence still serves a purpose
  • Ask students if they think violence is a nature or nurture behavior 
  • Show them Sprouts’ video on the Psychology of Violence
  • Ask the class what they think now about the transmission of violence as a behavior 
  • Ask students to identify other behaviors that may be passed down via culture and education but also may have a biological component


  • Script: Ludovico Saint Amour di Chanaz and Jonas Koblin
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Production: Selina Bador
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda

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