Rage in America: Why is this Happening? Part I, Steven James Bartlett

Rage in America has become commonplace. Mass killings are now an everyday occurrence: During 2022, there were 647 mass shootings (in each, at least four victims were killed).[1] This means that mass murders have been occurring in our country during the past year at an average rate of nearly two a day. Many of these killings take place in schools, some in churches, others in shopping malls, stores, and post offices, others in hospitals or in businesses—wherever groups of people are likely to be found. At the same time, the U.S. rate of homicides (in which one to three victims are killed) recently reached its highest peak since the 1990s … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Tu Hao Chin via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Bartlett, Steven James. 2023. “Rage in America: Why is this Happening?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (1): 46-60. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7xg.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Steven James Bartlett’s “Rage in America: Why is this Happening?” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please refer to Part II. The PDF of the entire article is linked above in the Article Citation.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Bartlett, Steven James. 2022. “The Human Refusal to Look in the Mirror.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 46-55.

Road rage, too, has now become common and pervasive. Airline rage occurs daily. Inner-city shootings have become so frequent, cities find it hard to track their numbers. The incidence of hate crimes has skyrocketed, as have violent incidents of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. America has become so venomously politically divided, political rage, too, is now widespread. All of these expressions of rage take the form of violent and destructive behavior that often leaves innocent victims dead or injured and others traumatized.

Many Americans do not realize that the extreme incidence and prevalence of rage-driven aggression and destructiveness in the United States is without parallel in any other industrialized country in the world. At the present time, mass killings alone are occurring in this country at a rate some seven times greater than in any other high income country (Fowler et al. 2021, 1).

This is, and should be, a disturbing picture. The situation we face in America calls for an explanation why this is happening.

Most of us have become numb to the frequency of these expressions of intense anger and frustration, uncontrollable resentment and the decision to lash out. We simply watch and feel we can do nothing as these emotions snowball and accumulate in intensity until they take the form of raw, open, and violent rage.

Why is this happening? And why is this happening on such a wide scale, so frequently, so often involving innocent people, and, time and again, young children?

As a species, we have an almost unlimited capacity to become used to things, and we have become habituated to the bad news—that today, once again, children are killed at a school, bystanders at a celebration are bombed or run over, drivers exchange blows or bullets, airline passengers attack one another or the flight crew, and even the police upon whom we depend to prevent these things are targeted and shot. Politicians whose views some people hate are hounded, threatened with violence, and some are attacked, badly injured, or killed.

But there has been almost complete silence in answer to the question “Why is this happening?” Should we be surprised and disappointed by our utter failure to understand what is going on?

On the one hand, silence succeeds in answering that question just by leaving it behind, by ignoring and dismissing it, by resigning ourselves with a sigh, “this is just the way things are now,” and we shake our heads in sad dismay. On the other hand, however, as long as we have no clear answer, we’re unable to learn what we need in order to help us intelligently confront and reduce the continuing outpouring of rage.

In spite of increasingly frequent outbreaks of anger, violence, and murder, have we systematically studied why individual perpetrators feel as they do—and from this information have we reached any generally applicable conclusions? We may sometimes learn a few personal details about their lives, disappointments, and circumstances which may have raised that person’s level of anger until he or she lashed out in violence. But the information that we get is always local, individual, and situational. We fail to come to terms with what is happening on a large scale. We still have no comprehensive understanding why this is occurring.

I have studied human behavior and its underlying psychology for more than half a century. During this time, I have reluctantly been forced to recognize strong and deeply rooted reasons why “the bigger picture” of our species so often eludes and is even avoided by the majority of people. Very often it’s because of the beliefs people prefer to have. The beliefs they want and choose to believe limit what they’re willing to think, consider, or accept.[2] And nearly everybody is like this. It’s a rare person who does not have a set of closely guarded cherished beliefs, and an even rarer person who is able to step back from his or her preferred beliefs, put them emotionally at arm’s length, and consider things with an unprejudiced mind, without selective prejudgment.

I mention these limitations that come from our allegiance to our preferred beliefs for a reason. The reason is that a great many people will not like the answer to the question, “Why has rage become so common—and not only in America, but in other countries as well?”

Unfortunately, for many people the answer will not be likable. But sometimes—if we’re to solve the problem of widespread enraged behavior—we need to summon the resolve and self-control to get over whether we like a particular answer to a troubling question.

We May Not Want to Know Why Rage is Happening

Elsewhere, I’ve directed attention to what I call “one-way concepts” (Bartlett 2022). These are concepts that we—proud human species that we are—apply to “lower animals,” but refuse to apply to ourselves. An example of such a one-way concept is parasitism. Parasites, we prefer to think, are all non-human. We believe that species which damage or kill their hosts must always belong to species other than ours. We don’t reflect and ask whether our own species is also a real parasite, whether it has attained the role of a parasite on a global scale, an invasive species that widely and indiscriminately injures and destroys other species in order to sustain itself and multiply. To be willing to apply the concept of parasitism in this way is to be willing to break free from the unquestioned constraint which we place on that one-way concept.

In a parallel unexamined way, we prefer to believe that psychologically normal people do not lash out in uncontrolled anger, hatred, and violence. We would like to believe that perpetrators of mass murder are mentally ill. We therefore engage in psychoticizing them. However, with only very few exceptions, the great majority of perpetrators of mass killings do not receive court judgments that found that their behavior occurred “by reason of insanity.” Most are not psychotics; most are psychologically normal people.

Little known to general readers is the similar fact that, thanks to careful and detailed psychiatric studies of Nazi war criminals, we know that the great majority were psychologically normal.

We know that psychologically normal people will, when circumstances are right, obey their leaders and inflict great suffering and loss of life on innocent people.[3] They will also, when they’re sufficiently stressed, lash out in rage and violence. As we shall see, much of the explanation for the epidemic of rage derives from the kind of stress they feel.

Psychologically normal people are not only capable of cruelty, aggression, and the killing of others, but they are most often the perpetrators. We need to recognize this reality about psychologically normal human beings, otherwise we find ourselves insisting that the beliefs we hold dear—that psychologically normal people are good, decent, and incapable of harming other innocent people—must be true, even though we now have more than ample evidence that this is false. (Readers who need to be convinced will find a massive amount of confirming evidence collected and evaluated from a wide range of disciplines in my book, The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil (Bartlett 2005).)

So far I’ve mentioned exclusionary one-way concepts and our widespread uncritical acceptance of psychological normality as a standard of good mental health. As we shall see, together these have a central role in explaining America’s continuing epidemic of rage.

Recent Fundamental Changes in Human Psychology

The past 100 years have brought changes to human life on a magnitude that human beings have never in their evolutionary history experienced before. Of the many changes, the increase in the world’s population has been one of the most dramatic. In 1930, the world population was about 2 billion. But by 2011, the human population passed 7 billion, and recently, in just slightly more than a decade, it passed 8 billion.

This extremely rapid rate of increase has brought with it numerous changes that affect the daily lives of the billions of people who now share this planet. The effects of the tremendous increase in the human population have led directly to the global climate crisis we now face, to the extinction already of hundreds of thousands of other species on a devastating scale not seen since our species evolved, the pollution of the air, rivers, and oceans, the destruction of forests, the depletion of natural resources including drinking water and the marine population, and many more. These are changes on a worldwide scale whose effects are accelerating and are increasingly being felt directly, dramatically, and painfully by more and more people, as well as by other animals, plants, and microorganisms.

In their daily lives, people experience the effects of the exploding population in very concrete and personal ways. But just how people feel and react to these effects is at present insufficiently understood in terms of their psychological and social consequences. Many of the changes that people experience on a daily basis are very consciously recognized: increased traffic and commuting times; longer lines; lengthier waiting periods for medical and other services; difficulties in finding primary care physicians and accessing medical treatment; increased costs, competition, and scarcities relating to housing, food, products, and drinking water; more densely packed airlines accompanied by travel delays; noise pollution and light pollution at night; acute stress due to the COVID pandemic, whose virulence and spread our population density and ease of travel have exacerbated;[4] and this list is of course far from complete.

But much less conscious for most of us are the effects of the rapid population increase that influence how we feel about ourselves, how we situate our sense of individual value and worth in a world that is filled more and more with others who also sense, equally indirectly and often without explicit awareness, that the individual person has become little more now than a mere one out of thousands upon millions of others.

We need to recognize and assess these less explicitly recognized changes that have come about as a result of the population tsunami that has overtaken us. To do this, I ask readers to consider evidence drawn from non-human animal studies. For this purpose, we need to counter our deeply entrenched proud ways of thinking that prefer to be exclusionary, that exempt human beings from the application of much that we’ve learned about the consequences of overpopulation in other animals.

Crowding and Animal Behavior

Beginning early in the mid-1940s, animal researchers began to study and recognize the effects of crowding on animals. Since then, a multitude of careful scientific studies has taken place. The accumulated evidence they have provided has confirmed that crowding due to overpopulation has severe and often lethal effects on a very wide variety of animals, plants, as well as microorganisms. We can learn from these results, if we are willing.

Numerous species of non-human forms of life, whether they are larger animals and plants or microscopic life forms, are subject to what amounts to built-in forms of self-regulation that serve to control their populations. Such self-regulation when crowding occurs may be active, as when members of a species intentionally kill fellow members, often their young and sick, or it may be passive, as when crowding leads to a precipitous decline in an organism’s reproduction, or when resource scarcity severely culls or kills off a population, or when the size and density of a population pave the way for epidemics of disease and the multiplication of disease variants.

It is worth lingering for a moment on two of the earliest studies of the effects of population density, undertaken by ethologist John B. Calhoun and pathologist-neuroscientist Hudson Hoagland. Their pioneering papers from more than 60 years ago remain relevant: Calhoun published “Population Density and Social Pathology” in 1962, and two years later Hoagland published “Cybernetics of Population Control.” Calhoun’s work became famous around the world for his studies of the pathological effects of crowding among rats. Hoagland recognized the applicability of Calhoun’s studies to the human species, anticipated the crisis of human population growth, and as a result became a major contributor to human birth control research.

Calhoun found that overcrowding produces what he called “acute stress syndrome,” a group of psychological and behavioral symptoms that result from heightened activity of the pituitary adrenal system, responsible for the release of hormones when an organism experiences stress. When colonies of rats become crowded, pathological changes in their behavior occur. Among these, Calhoun observed two phenomena that will especially concern us: greatly increased violence among the males and the development of what he called a “behavioral sink.”

A behavioral sink forms when the density of a population reaches a point that animals begin to crowd closely together in uncharacteristically large groups. “Eating and other biological activities were … transformed into social activities in which the principal satisfaction was interaction with other rats” (Calhoun 1962, 139, emphasis added). This “pathological togetherness” (139) disrupts the animals’ normal patterns of life, exacerbating violence, sexual deviation, and cannibalism among the males, and interfering with the reproductive behavior of females and the adequate care of the young with consequent high infant mortality.

A behavioral sink, in other words, comes about when crowding—and this is surely paradoxical— itself leads to a pronounced need for increased social togetherness and social interaction from which the animals derive their main gratifications; this urge for group-togetherness then leads to such social pathological consequences as increased violence and withdrawal of proper care of the young. Calhoun concluded that “… a behavioral sink does act to aggravate all forms of pathology that can be found within a group” (144).

Hudson Hoagland recognized the importance of Calhoun’s research in demonstrating that “serious pathology in a society” occurs as a result of overcrowding (Hoagland 1964, 5). He noted that the killing of young members of a species happens frequently among crowded mammals, no matter whether they are rodents, lions, fish, spiders, crabs, or the larvae of many insects. “In all cases experimentally investigated, the mortality is found to be dependent on population density and to cease below a certain critical population density” (6, original italics). He also recognized that many overpopulated species engage in migration when they face dwindling resources (5).

Hoagland was not barred by exclusionist human preferences and so was able to recognize that these results apply equally to our own species. In acknowledging the applicability of animal studies to the human species, he was not optimistic:

What about man? What can we do about the world population explosion? We could, of course, do nothing and just wait for the stress syndrome or a new virus to do its work…. We can leave the “solution” to some trigger-happy dictator with a suitable stockpile of nuclear weapons, or perhaps we can finally decide on an optimal population for the world and, by education and social pressure, try to see that it is not exceeded (6).

The application of Calhoun’s work to humanity very soon was sidelined and ignored in the face of the insistence by the majority of researchers as well as by the public that we should limit ourselves to optimistic forecasts. Unfortunately, the psychology of human hope shows us that it very often blinds us to reality and stands in the way of effective problem-solving (see Bartlett 2005; 2022).

The Human Non-Response to Population Warnings

In the 1960s, at the time that Calhoun and Hoagland published their research, alarm bells were already beginning to sound over the human “population explosion.” The reality and some of the disastrous consequences of a future enormous human population that would result from the addition of many billions of people were anticipated based on evidence and careful projections; the data attracted the attention of many concerned scientists and was then much in the news. The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s influential book, Silent Spring, was then beginning to influence global environmental concerns. This period of the 60s was immediately followed by the warnings expressed in the 1972 study, The Limits to Growth, which pointed to limitations of exponential human reproduction in relation to finite resources.

It was then but a simple step to connect these together and foresee the likely devastating ecological consequences of the growing human mass and its worldwide invasion of ecosystems and the destruction of the organisms that inhabit them.

These twin concerns—first, the urgent need to recognize and limit accelerating human population growth and to recognize the constraints imposed by physical reality, and second, our species’ predictable ecological pathology[5] then were optimistically swept, by most researchers as well as by the public, under the carpet, ignored, and dismissed for many decades.

Three of the principal authors of The Limits to Growth, in their 2004 updated book, commented:

It is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well-intentioned, but halfhearted, responses to the global ecological challenge. We do not have another 30 years to dither. Much will have to change if the ongoing overshoot is not to be followed by collapse during the twenty-first century. (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows 2004, xii).

The authors sought, in 1972 and then again 32 years later, to throw cold water in our faces to wake us up to the anticipatable crisis resulting from our ballooning population. But their efforts have continued to have little effect in the two decades that have passed since their re-issued warning.

What I have elsewhere called “the human refusal to look in the mirror” (Bartlett 2022) has come to dominate and constrict the scope of concern of both scientific research and public awareness. Uncritical optimism over humanity’s bright future, coupled with controlling economic interests and the Catholic Church’s pro-reproduction mantra, have effectively silenced the population warnings, and the years have gone on passing without the implementation of intelligent planning measures that had the potential to make a significant difference.

The undeniably strong connection between our expanding human population, on the one hand, and climate change and the worldwide destruction of biodiversity, on the other, continues today to be almost totally ignored. Exclusionary emphasis is placed on the urgency of immediate damage control in the face of the impending crisis due to global warming.

The essential, fundamental role of our species’ huge and ecologically invasive population is ignored and seldom even mentioned in discussions of climate change. And yet global warming and habitat and biodiversity destruction are the very evident direct consequences of the size and spread of the human population.

Moreover, as we shall see, the psychological and social consequences of our already massive human population—consequences that specifically take the form of rage—have been completely ignored.

What the past five decades show us is that concerns over the crushing collective weight of the human population have been pushed from our attention and concern. It is no wonder that we remain unaware of its effects on individual and social psychology, a subject to which we now turn.

Rage in America: Why is this Happening? Part II.

Author Information:

Steven James Bartlett, sbartlet@willamette.edu, Willamette University, http://willamette.edu/~sbartlet. ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5081-6778.


Bartlett, Steven James. 2022. “The Human Refusal to Look in the Mirror.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 46-55.

Bartlett, Steven James. 2021. Critique of Impure Reason: Horizons of Possibility and Meaning. Salem, OR: Studies in Theory and Behavior.

Bartlett, Steven James. 2018. “Mismeasuring Our Lives: The Case against Usefulness, Popularity, and the Desire to Influence Others.” PhilPapers https://philpapers.org/rec/BARMOL-2.

Bartlett, Steven James. 2011. Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health: The Need to Look Elsewhere for Standards of Good Psychological Health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Bartlett, Steven James. 2006. “The Ecological Pathology of Man.” Mentalities/Mentalités: An Interdisciplinary Journal 20 (2): 1-18. Available from Bartlett, Steven James. 2005. The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas. https://philpapers.org/rec/JAMEP/.

Calhoun, John B. 1962. “Population Density and Social Pathology.” Scientific American 206 (2): 139-149.

Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Fowler, Katherine A., Rachel A. Leavitt, Carter J. Betz, Keming Yuan, and Linda L. Dahlberg 2021. “Examining Differences between Mass, Multiple, and Single-Victim Homicides to Inform Prevention: Findings from the National Violent Death Reporting System.” Injury Epidemiology 8 (49): 1-16. https://injepijournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40621-021-00345-7. Accessed 12/03/2022.

Hoagland, Hudson. 1964. “Cybernetics of Population Control.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 20 (2): 2-6.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth : A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Associates.

Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

[1] https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls, accessed 01/20/2023.

[2] For a more detailed analysis, see the author’s “The Human Refusal to Look in the Mirror,” Bartlett (2022).

[3] See Bartlett (2005; 2011).

[4] A recent tendency of popular culture has been to attribute America’s incidents of violent rage to pandemic-based frustration. However, evidence of the U.S. epidemic of rage in its many forms was already unmistakable many years before COVID-19. Earlier mass killings include Las Vegas Strip and Sutherland Springs, TX ( both 2017), Sandy Hook Elementary School, CT (2012), Killen, TX (1991), Oklahoma City (1995), University of Texas (1966), and many others.

[5] On what I have called “human ecological pathology,” see Bartlett (2005; 2006).

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