The Psychological Roots of Gruesome Violence – Psychology Today

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Vlad Dracula’s legendary gruesomeness, such as dipping his bread in the blood of his enemies, inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Source: Vvssmmaann/Wikimedia Commons

Throughout history, there are many examples of violence that goes beyond simply defeating one’s enemy: heads on pikes, dismemberment, disembowelment. What’s the point of this gruesome form of violence? This was a question that spurred a recent study I conducted with collaborators from UCLA and UC Merced.1 

First, let’s go over some basics of aggressive conflict. Nature is a violent place. Most animals must compete for food, mates, status, and other resources. Of course, it’s not always worth it to fight over a resource. Aggression is costly, so animals need to be able to quickly and accurately assess the relative costs and benefits of fighting over a resource. Whether or not you decide to escalate a situation depends on the importance of the resource to you, how much you think it matters to your competitor, and the relative fighting ability of yourself compared to the competitor. Basically: How much do you want it, and what are your chances of winning a fight for it?

How Size and Strength Affect the Chances of Winning

In essentially every species, size is a good predictor of who will win a fight. The bigger dog will beat the smaller dog more times than not. This makes size a really valuable indicator of win success. This isn’t too surprising and