Animal violence has long delighted humans. Brawls between creatures of all kinds have been a source of entertainment since the dawn of domestication: According to some estimates, cockfights date from the The civilization of the Indus valley. The bloody hobby may actually explain why the jungle fowl were bred in captivity in the first place, possibly giving birth to the domestic chicken. And it could even be considered the oldest spectacle sport in the world.
Since then, the confrontations with the animals have drawn crowds across the world. Enthusiasm for aerial combat emerged following the Roman conquest of the British Isles – enterprising soldiers noticed the savage temper of the mastiffs used by their opponents on the battlefield and forced them to confront each other. For the enjoyment of the public, the Roman Emperor Trajan pitted 11,000 animals against each other between 108 and 109 AD.
Later, the Elizabethans favored the baiting of bulls and bears – the arenas that featured these conflicts gave Shakespeare’s Globe Theater a run for its money. People also forced bettas, canaries and even crickets fight for entertainment.
From the 19th century, the rise of criticism gradually put an end to these practices in much of the world (at least officially). Many countries now ban animal fighting, but regulations are often not enforced.
The enthusiasm for these fights persists and fighting circles continue to thrive underground where they facilitate lucrative gambling ventures. In 2007, NFL quarterback Michael Vick to plead guilty on charges of participating in an illegal dog-fighting operation. Dog fighting is still common in Afghanistan, India and South Africa, all of which have technically banned it. And some governments, like Japan, have not instituted national bans.
Although not universally accepted, the staged animal conflicts seem to be a human constant. In some places, supporters claim animal fights have cultural significance. Lawmakers in Puerto Rico, long a stronghold of cockfighting, have sought to overturn a federal ban enacted in 2018. Advocates have gone so far as go to the United States Supreme Court rescind the ban on the basis of state rights.
Even the food chain draws a crowd. YouTube videos of people feed live prey to their exotic animals have become extremely popular. In China, visitors to tiger farms can toss live chickens from buses and watch the big cats crush unfortunate fowls from the air and devour them.
What is it about the dog-eat-dog dynamic that keeps us going?
Scientists don’t quite understand why some people like to observe creature conflict, but the developing – and controversial – literature on the psychology of violence gives us some insight. “People are fascinated by this imbalance between two animals and the struggle between life and death,” says Sherman Lee, psychologist at Christopher Newport University.
Bread and circuses (bloody)
Yet everything is relative: even those who never dreamed of betting on a pit bull fight can still enjoy nature programming featuring predators chasing prey – lions stalking buffaloes in the savannah. African or tigers making their way through the marshes of the Sundarbans in pursuit of chital. It’s much more interesting to follow than a gorilla nibbling bamboo shoots.
Marty Stouffer, host of the popular PBS nature program Wild america, cynically exploited this attraction to the spectacle of predation and conflict – in the 1990s, he was accused of forcing fatal encounters with animals and passing off the recordings as natural occurrences.
Of course, many of us also enjoy watching violence between other humans, whether it’s a boxing match or a viral video of two people fighting in a parking lot. The reasons why these phenomena are so stimulating to some, and so revolting to others, are still debated.
“There is something that attracts people, but also, at the same time, disgusts them,” notes Erin Buckels, psychologist at the University of Winnipeg. “We know that violence, blood and guts are physiologically arousing.”
The attraction of macabre combats, whether animal or human, could be explained by the pain-blood-death complex, according to an article published in 2006 by the late Victor Nell of the University of South Africa. He linked it to the early adaptations of predatory animals: Because predation carries significant risks, he explained, the brains of predators must have evolved to positively reinforce what they might otherwise fear.
The same could be true of our own species as our ancestors lived in small groups that inevitably entered into competition with others. And, of course, some animals posed a significant threat. Arousal from stimuli associated with violent activity has remained a useful trend, Nell concludes, and its persistence explains why some respond so positively to violence today.
But his hypothesis is controversial. Many psychologists believe his theory ignores social factors that either reinforce or discourage violent behavior in humans. Behavioral reinforcement is probably more important in facilitating positive responses to violence, argues Michael Potegal, a neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota.
Why observing violence can feel good
Research has shown that violence and aggression are partly mediated by the brain’s reward networks. the ventral tegmental area (VTA) produces dopamine which is transmitted to the striatum, allowing us to anticipate reward. The resulting flood of endorphins and enkephalins produced by our brain triggers a pleasurable sensation. This mechanism can also be activated by proxy – when we simply observe the violence, rather than participating in it directly.
“When people who love violence watch violence, you see activity in these reward networks,” says Abigail Marsh, psychologist and neuroscientist at Georgetown University.
Studies violence in sports competitions suggest that staged conflicts may be advantageous in an evolutionary sense, as they allow humans to channel their natural aggression in a confined environment. Supporters of this hypothesis point to the fact that football, arguably the most violent mainstream sport, is also the sport of the country. most watched. Audience for mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting, which highlights brutal behavior, has also grown since its inception in 1993. Viewers, they argue, benefit from a cathartic and energizing effect. The same may be true of animal violence.
“If you’re bored or low on energy, research has shown time and time again that we tend to look for media that will raise our energy levels, grab our attention, keep us busy,” says Jessica Myrick, a communications professor from Pennsylvania State University who has researched media presentation of shark attacks.
Of course, not everyone relishes violence – many are actually repelled by it, even in natural settings like a lion hunt. The search for sensations tends to vary in the general population, which means that some people eagerly seek new and highly stimulating experiences and others avoid them. Some groups tend to show higher tendencies to seek sensations, according to psychological surveys. These include decorated war heroes who took significant risks, for example, or mountaineers (for obvious reasons).
Individual differences in the chemistry and structure of the brain likely play a role here. MRI studies showed that those who had higher measures of sensation-seeking characteristics exhibited higher cortical arousal when exposed to strong stimuli, while those who had a lower score on the sensation seeking exhibited cortical inhibition.
Marsh also points out that those with psychopathic tendencies, who are known to enjoy vicarious violence, typically have lower levels of tonsils – structures in the brain associated with the regulation of emotions. Conversely, those with unusually high levels of empathy had larger tonsils, because it found during the study of kidney donors.
Yet our reactions to violence do not happen in a vacuum. Feelings towards animal encounters are socially moderate at both the individual and the population level. Exposure to animals at a young age likely increases empathy for them, Marsh says. Likewise, societies that emphasize altruism in the human sense of the term tend to extend these sensitivities to animal welfare. The reverse is also true.
Marsh advocates a holistic attitude towards these preferences. “Whether or not someone enjoys watching a large predator consume another animal reflects the balance between emotions,” she says. “Being afraid of predators, feelings of wonder, excitement, action, novelty, these are the kinds of things that draw people to these experiences. What keeps people away from them, obviously, is compassion, which is really powerful.