Cognitive Science Perspectives on Conflict, Violence, Peace, and Justice

3 units, Spring Quarter 2014-2015, Stanford University

Meeting Time: Mondays 3:15-5:45 PM beginning March 30
Location: 460-126 (Greenberg Seminar Room, Margaret Jacks Hall)

Instructor: Todd Davies
Instructor's Office: 460-040C (Margaret Jacks Hall, lower level)
Email: davies at stanford dot edu
Phone: x3-4091; Fax: x3-5666
Office Hours: Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays 10:30 - 11:55 AM

Syllabus (this page):

Interactive website:
Adaptation of Human Nature/Life
                Death, 1983 by Bruce Nauman - The Art Institute of
                Chicago. Animated GIF created by Todd Davies, 2/6/2015,
                from frames taken on 5/22/2009 by neogejo
                ( and used by
                permission. The museum's description of this refers to
                it as a 'literal peace sign'
                but that is not quite correct. What is the symbol formed
                by Nauman's words in this sculpture? This GIF is
                licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0


This version: May 13, 2015 [check this site for updates]


Completion of a course in psychology beyond the level of Psych 1, or consent of the instructor. Note: The course materials and blog will be publicly available, but class sessions are open only to students enrolled in the course.

Course Overview:

This advanced small seminar explores research by cognitive scientists on questions that have traditionally been investigated by historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists, e.g. What are the sources of conflict and disagreement between people?, What drives or reduces violence and injustice?, and What brings about or is conducive to peace and justice? The course will be taught as a reading seminar: We will read books and articles, and discuss them both online and in class.

The course will be organized around two books (which should be available prior to the first day of classes in the textbooks department at the Stanford Bookstore):

After an overview and introductions in week 1, the whole class will read Pinker's book, along with some critiques and updates, over weeks 2 through 6, and Greene's book over weeks 7 and 8.  Then, for the last two weeks of the course, students will present and lead discussions about other works they have read related to the themes of the course, and we will have a summation at the end. The exact schedule of the last two weeks will depend on the number of students enrolled and their interests. The scheduled date for Week 9 falls on Memorial Day (a holiday), so we will find a special day and time for a makeup session that week aimed at fitting students' availability.

The written component of the course will take place online, with weekly 300-500 word comments on the assigned readings, graded in a mixed instructor/peer scheme (see below for details).  Comments must be made ahead of each class session by 5 pm so that everyone can read them before that week's discussion.  I will lead the discussions of the common readings (weeks 2-8), turning it over to student presenters/discussion leaders in the last phase (weeks 9-10). A schedule is posted below.


Each student is required to (a) attend and participate regularly, (b) do the assigned reading and post at least one reaction comment (300 to 500 words) on this website per week, by 3 pm on the day of class, (c) read and provide confidential peer scores for their own and other students' comments, and (d) select and present a focus topic in class, provide sample readings for the class at least one week ahead of their presentation, and lead a discussion on their focal topic during the final weeks of the course. Reaction comments will be posted on the course blog, which will be linked by the first day of class. Peer and self-scores will be due each Thursday by 12 noon for the comments on the previous Monday's reading. There is no final paper or exam in the course.


Week 1 (March 30) -- Overview and Introductions

Week 2 (April 6) -- The Better Angels of Our Nature, Preface and chapters 1, 2, & 3

Week 3 (April 13) -- The Better Angels of Our Nature, chapters 4 & 5

Week 4 (April 20) -- The Better Angels of Our Nature, chapters 6 & 7

Week 5 (April 27) -- The Better Angels of Our Nature, chapters 8 & 9

Week 6 (May 4) --
The Better Angels of Our Nature, chapter 10 + reviews and updates

Week 7 (May 11) -- Moral Tribes, Introduction and chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6

Week 8 (May 18) -- Moral Tribes, chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, & 12 + live video discussion with Joshua Greene

Week 9 (May 25) -- NO MEETING; HOLIDAY

Week 10-A (June 1) -- Student-led Discussions I

Week 10-B (Wednesday, June 3, 6-8:30pm) -- Student-led Discussions II
NOTE: Special day and time for our last meeting


The course grade will be based on the following breakdown:

Grades for the presentation/discussion leading and attendance/participation will be assigned by me alone. Grades for comments, however, will be graded in the following way:

Each week, I will solicit from each student a score (out of 5 points possible) for every other student's comments that week. Individual peer scores will be kept confidential between me and the student issuing the score. I will average my own score for each comment with the median peer score for that comment to arrive at a weekly comment score for each student.

Suggested Books for Student-Led Discussions (Weeks 9-10):

    Hannah Arendt (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

    Simon Baron-Cohen (2012), The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty   

    Paul Bloom (2014), Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

    Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2013), A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

    Patricia S. Churchland (2012), Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality

    Frans de Waal (2010), The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society

    Frans de Waal (2014), The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
    Nicholas Epley (2014), Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

Martha J. Farah, Editor (2010), Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings

Douglas P. Fry, Editor (2013), War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views

Dave Grossman (2009),
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Revised Edition)

Jonathan Haidt (2013), The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Marc D. Hauser (2013), Evilicious: Cruelty = Desire + Denial

Daniel Kahneman (2011/2013), Thinking Fast and Slow 

    Ian Morris (2015), Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve

    Ian Morris (2014), War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots
    Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield (2012), SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed
    David W. Pfaff (2015), The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good

    Massimo Pigliucci (2012), Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life

    Adrian Raine (2014), The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime

    Peter Singer (2015), The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically

    Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2008), Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

    Bruce N. Waller (2014), The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility

    David Sloan Wilson (2015), Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others

    Philip Zimbardo (2008), The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Articles of Interest:

    Reviews of and follow-ups to Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (read at least four reviews and one of the follow-ups by Pinker):
        Max Abrahms (Summer 2012), "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined", Customer Reviews: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

        Ronald Aronson (May 9, 2013), "Pinker and Progress"
        Laura L. Betzig (September 2012), "Angels and Demons"
        Chetan Bhatt (December 2013) "Simple Minds: The Evolutionary Absolutism of Stephen [sic] Pinker"       
        Noam Chomsky and Lawrence Krauss (March 22, 2015), An Origins Project Dialogue (Part 1/2) [video, Pinker discussion starts at 50:50]; and Stephen Pinker, "Noam Chomsky's Misreading of Human Nature" [video]
        Stephen Corry (June 12, 2013), "The Case of the 'Brutal Savage': Poirot or Clouseau? Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong"
        Tyler Cowen (October 11, 2011), "Steven Pinker on Violence"
        Martin Daly (October 26, 2011), "Psychology: A Farewell to Arms"
        Aschwin de Wolf (Summer 2012), "Make Money, Not War"
        Robert Epstein (October 7, 2011), "Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature"
        R. Brian Ferguson (2013), "Pinker's List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality"
        Lawrence Freedman (September 11, 2014), "Stephen [sic] Pinker and the Long Peace: Alliance, Deterrence, and Decline"
        Douglas P. Fry and Patrik Söderberg (October 2014), "Myths About Hunter-Gatherers Redux: Nomadic Forager War and Peace"
        Steve Fuller (September 4, 2012), "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined - by Steven Pinker"
        Cyn Gaigals (August 11, 2014), "Where Angels Fear to Tread"
        John Gray (September 11, 2011), "Delusions of Peace"
        John Gray (March 11, 2015), "Steven Pinker Is Wrong About Violence and War" with response: Steven Pinker (March 20, 2015), "Guess What? More People Are Living in Peace Now. Just Look at the Numbers"
        Carl Haub (March 21, 2012), "Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"
        Edward Herman (February 20, 2012), "Steven Pinker on 'The Triumph of Angels'"
        John Horgan (April 1, 2015), "Steven Pinker, John Gray, and the End of War"
        International Studies Review (September 27, 2013), "The Forum: The Decline of War"
        Robert Jervis (November/December 2011), "Pinker the Prophet"
        Nam C. Kim (2012), "Angels, Illusions, Hydras, and Chimeras: Violence and Humanity"
        Elizabeth Kolbert (October 3, 2011), "Peace in Our Time"

        John Lea (December 2013) "Civilising Mission"       
        Richard B. Lee (2014), "Hunter-Gatherers on the Best-Seller List: Steven Pinker and the 'Bellicose School's' Treatment of Forager Violence"
        Caitlin O. Mahoney (November 2013), "Why peace? The taming of the aggressive instinct and the evolution of the capacity for cooperation. A review of The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined"
        Jennifer Mitzen (June 2013), "The Irony of Pinkerism"
        John Naughton (October 15, 2011), "Steven Pinker: Fighting Talk From the Prophet of Peace" [interview]
        David Peterson (July 24, 2012), "Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western Imperial Violence"
        David Peterson (December 2, 2012), "Steven Pinker on the Alleged Decline of Violence"
        Steven Pinker and Charlie Rose (April 3, 2012), Interview [video]
        Steven Pinker (December 4, 2012), Author's Response to
Benjamin Ziemann (April 2012), "Histories of Violence"      
        Steven Pinker (January 13, 2015), "Response to the Book Review Symposium: Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature"
Steven Pinker (March 20, 2015), "Guess What? More People Are Living in Peace Now. Just Look at the Numbers", response to John Gray (March 11, 2015), "Steven Pinker Is Wrong About Violence and War"               
        Steven Pinker, "Frequently Asked Questions About The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"                Larry Ray (December 2013) "Book Review Symposium: Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"       
        Hilary Rose (December 2013) "Book Review Symposium: Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"       
        Peter Singer (October 11, 2011), "Is Violence History?"
        Timothy Snyder (January/February 2012), "War No More: Why the World Has Become More Peaceful"
        David N. Stamos (2012), "And the Meek Shall Inherit the Earth (Somewhat)"
        Alan A. Stone (May 2014), "Book Reviews: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"
        Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012), "The Long Peace Is a Statistical Illusion", with respons: Steven Pinker, "Fooled By Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb's 'The Long Peace Is A Statistical Illusion'"
        Jacqui True (August 14, 2014), "Are War and Violence Really in Decline?"
        P. A. J. Waddington (May 2, 2013), "Steven Pinker (2012). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"
        Jeremy Waldron (January 12, 2012), "A Cheerful View of Mass Violence"
        Benjamin Ziemann (April 2012), "Histories of Violence" with Steven Pinker's Response

Links to Programs of Interest:
Peace+Justice Studies Initiative