Two weeks ago, on March 30th, the Atlantic magazine published a story headlined “Why People Are Acting so Weird.” The article claimed that “Crime, “unruly passenger” incidents [on airplanes], and other types of strange behavior have all soared recently.”
Peculiarly, the first example it gave was of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Academy Awards, an incident that did not take place in 2023, but over a year ago in 2022.[i] And that is the main flaw in the article. It’s a report on what was happening in 2021 and 2022. Not on what’s happening now.
In fact, crazy behavior is going down in 2023. It is decreasing.
But bizarre behavior is still substantial. People are still getting killed in road rage incidents where a gun is present. A tiny number of passengers on planes are still going crazy. And we have mass shootings that are utterly insane.
To understand why, you have to know two basic principles of evolutionary biology.
One is the frustration-aggression hypothesis. Train a rat to run down a tiny, bowling-alley-like maze and get food at the maze’s end. Once the rat has settled into this feeding routine, unsettle him. Put an electric grid that stings his feet in front of the food. Now the rat runs eagerly down the maze to get his food and has his feet sizzled.
He is frustrated. How does he handle that frustration? He will beat the bejesus out of any smaller rat who comes across his path.
The creators of the frustration-aggression hypothesis saw this at work in statistics on the deep south from 1882 to 1930.[ii] When cotton prices went down, white southerners were frustrated. And lynchings went up. That’s the frustration aggression hypothesis.
The second principle you need to understand is the pecking order, the dominance hierarchy first found in chickens in 1905. A peaceful barnyard has a well-established social ladder. At the top is chicken number one, who goes to the feeding trough first and can peck any other chicken in the yard. Chicken number two is second at the trough and can peck any other chicken in the flock with the exception of chicken number one. Chicken number three is third at the trough and can peck any other chicken in the farmyard with the exception of chicken number one and chicken number two. And so on down to the bottom chicken in the pecking order, the chicken everyone can peck but who is not allowed to peck back.
The barnyard you’re looking at is peaceful. For a reason. Every chicken knows her place. The question of who is number one, who is number two, and who is on the bottom has been settled.
But throw a new chicken into the barnyard, and all hell breaks loose. Why? Because the new chicken is going to have to find her place in the pecking order. And if you are a chicken in the barnyard, you don’t want the newcomer to find a place above you. If she did manage to get above you, that would lower your status.
Status is everything for chickens…and for humans. But right now there are new chickens in the yard and pecking orders are up for grabs wherever you look. Russia is fighting in the Ukraine to climb back to its old imperial glory. China is striving to become the world’s biggest economy and its biggest military power.
And within the United States, the traditional pecking order is being thrown out the window. People of color and LGBTQs are pushing their way higher. Which means that some groups fear they are going to be pushed lower. Like white heterosexual working class men. This frustration leads to aggression.
Then there’s the stress and social change generated by the three years of the pandemic.
Frustration, aggression, and a changing pecking order. The result is that all hell is breaking loose.
Beck, E. M., and Stewart E. Tolnay. “The Killing Fields of the Deep South: The Market for Cotton and the Lynching of Blacks, 1882-1930.” American Sociological Review, vol. 55, no. 4, 1990, pp. 526–39. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2095805. Accessed 11 May 2023.
Miller, N. E., Mowrer, O. H., Doob, L. W., Dollard, J., & Sears, R. R. (1958). Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis. In C. L. Stacey & M. DeMartino (Eds.), Understanding human motivation (pp. 251–255). Howard Allen Publishers.https://doi.org/10.1037/11305-023
Howard Bloom of the Howard Bloom Institute has been called the Einstein, Newton, and Freud of the 21st century by Britain’s Channel 4 TV. One of his seven books–Global Brain—was the subject of a symposium thrown by the Office of the Secretary of Defense including representatives from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Psychology Today, and the Scientific American. He does news commentary at 1:06 am Eastern Time every Wednesday night on 545 radio stations on Coast to Coast AM. For more, see http://howardbloom.institute.