Harvard expert tells N1: Social norms in the Balkans can encourage violence

NEWS 28.08.202314:35 0 komentara

A typical crime scene – police tape, officers at every corner, reporters filling the streets, locals having an expression of weariness and horror on their faces. Prior to the week of Friday 11, 2023, the quintessential and peaceful Bosnian town of Gradacac in the northern part of the country was mostly known for its plums and business fairs. 

However, that changed drastically when 35-year-old Nermin Sulejmanovic proudly announced on that fateful Friday morning that he would kill his partner while streaming it live on Instagram. Just around two hours later he fulfilled that promise.

The video of the gruesome killing of the young mother was available on social media for hours after it had happened. The cries of their 9-month-old baby can be heard in the background as he first beats up his partner Nizama Hecimovic and then shot her in the forehead.

He then went on a killing rampage, firing shots at police officers and killing two of his former business associates, a father and son. He later shot himself.


As the country is still in the recovery process from the gruesome events and the institutions are passing around the “hot potato” of blame, each unwilling to shoulder responsibility for the unfortunate circumstances that gave rise to this event, N1's Lejla Nuhanovic had the opportunity to sit down with a leading expert on aggression and someone who has dedicated their career to understanding the underlying factors that contribute to such tragic events.

The resume of Dr. Miriam Lindner, a post-doctoral student of Steven Pinker, a renowned cognitive psychologist, psycholinguist and public intellectual, is quite impressive. Her PhD is concerned with public reactions to terrorism while her award-winning post-doctoral research at Harvard University deals with male aggression towards women. It is on this research that she worked with Professor Pinker who mentored her along the way.

Having a profound understanding of the psychological underpinnings of violent extremism, our expert is well-versed in the intricate connections between factors such as misogyny, mass violence, and suicidality. With a specialization in incel psychology and violence, she is able to bring a comprehensive perspective to the table.

In our conversation, we delve deep into the complex web of societal pressures, psychological factors, and systemic shortcomings that can potentially fuel the kind of violence witnessed in Gradačac. Through this dialogue, we hope to gain insights that could pave the way for meaningful change and preventive measures against such devastating acts.

The Western Balkans and Male Aggression

Asked how a society that is considered patriarchal can influence male aggression towards women, Dr. Lindner told us that the evolved male psychology is wired to react to specific environmental cues, often with a tinge of aggression.

To understand this, we should first understand what evolved male psychology is. There exists some degree of sexual conflict between men and women and this conflict has led to specific mechanisms in male and female psychologies. the male psychology is particularly sensitive to cues pertaining to sexual conflict. One of the ways in which male psychology deals with responding to those cues is by engaging in aggression or threats of aggression.

“Now, picture this psychology in an environment where societal norms actively endorse and even encourage adversarial expressions of these inclinations. This scenario becomes particularly pronounced in a deeply patriarchal society like the Western Balkans,” she says.

Here, she tells N1, the interplay becomes evident: the ingrained male psychology encounters an environment that fosters certain behaviours. In a society where patriarchal values have deep roots, the backdrop is set for aggression to find its way to the surface. The synergy between evolved psychology and prevailing norms creates a context in which such aggressive tendencies are not just present but can even be amplified.

Based on this, it seems safe to conclude that the traditional male-dominated structure of the Western Balkans has a significant role in shaping the manifestation of evolved male psychology, offering a lens through which we can better understand the dynamics at play.
The Western Balkans is in many regards still deeply traditional regarding most social issues and data shows it.

Women are still disproportionately less present in the workforce, there are fewer women in politics and in leadership positions despite being the more educated ones. They are often victims of violence, from rape to murder.

Past vs. Present

“In the past, men benefited from exercising coercion over women, their partners. One of the reasons, for example, was because of parental investment, the fear of cuckoldry, of raising another man's child. These behaviours and aggression and coercion of the women benefited males in the past. Thus, their psychology is evolved so that it wants to engage in behaviours that are controlling and coercive and proprietary,” explained Dr. Lindner.

It is not that male psychology is always coercive or propriety, she clarified, but it comes out when there are cues pertaining to sexual conflict that are to the disadvantage of the male.

“For example, desertion of a partner, i.e. removing a mating opportunity from a partner. It is in those cases that the tendency to become coercive or proprietary that it comes out.

However, she continued, having such coercive practices in a modern environment is not a good idea.

“Times have changed significantly just in the last 50 years. As recently as 1973, England had a law that granted men the right to restrain their wives if they wanted to leave them. In the West, we now witness a fascinating phenomenon. The modern woman is no longer reliant on a man to provide for her and thus she can opt out of the sexual marketplace and dating in general,” Dr. Lindner told N1.

The Threat of Violence as a Deterrent

Nevertheless, even in more progressive societies, women still face many challenges reminiscent of those experienced by our forebears. Male aggression is most likely to be expressed as threats first before engaging in actual violence.


Dr. Lindner tells us that male aggression towards women is mostly the result of remnants of mechanisms in times past.

“As I mentioned earlier, male reproductive success would have benefited from being coercive and proprietary in our ancestral past. Thus, they reduce the chance that a woman will abandon them, and it discourages cheating, which could result in raising another man’s child.  Threats of aggression could have served as a deterrent in these situations. We must bear in mind that the mere act of violence is the most extreme form of this aggression because it represents a risk to the perpetrator. He might also get hurt in the process of hurting another person. Thus, men rely on threats of violence, hoping it will be enough to deter their partner from seeking other mating opportunities,” Dr. Lindner says.

When examining cases of femicide it becomes apparent that this extreme act often stems from a response to these perceived threats. The World Health Organization states that a large proportion of femicides are of women in violent relationships, and are committed by current or former partners.

It's evident that instances, where men assault their intimate partners, are frequently triggered by factors such as suspicions of infidelity, the threat of the partner leaving, or even a desire to assert control over their partner's independence.

Anger Managemet

Contrary to the notion that, as Dr. Lindner tells us, evolutionary psychological approaches are unchangeably deterministic, she asserts that human interaction with the environment plays a significant role. The prevailing misunderstanding that male psychology is fixed and unalterable stands corrected, as the intricate interplay between nature and nurture comes to the forefront.

Dr. Miriam Lindner

Central to this question is the vital need for comprehensive education regarding psychology's inner workings, particularly the intricacies of evolved male psychology.

“We have the compelling case of anger. For the longest time, we have thought of anger as a negative emotion. However, evolutionary psychologists unveiled the deeper functionality of anger. Driven by a response to perceived low social evaluation, anger emerges as a recalibration mechanism.

Instead of seeing it as an adversary, we should understand the signal that triggered it. We can draw a parallel to a similar biological bodily response. When you get a fever, you understand it to be a symptom of something that is wrong in the body. We should think about anger in a similar way,” explains Dr. Lindner.

This leads us to think about possible solutions in curing male aggression in general.

Potential solutions

The journey towards mitigating male aggression hinges on embracing the knowledge about anger.

“Let's take for example an everyday scenario we can all relate to: a man approaching a woman, only to face rejection. When this happens, it's natural for him to feel a surge of anger. But here's where knowledge can make a difference. Understanding why men react strongly to rejection and the anger that follows gives us a tool to pause and think before reacting – it's like having an emotional roadmap,” says Dr. Lindner.

She used the example of stereotypes.

“Our brains have pattern-seeking mechanisms because they want to conserve mental and cognitive energy. That is the biology behind it. However, what I am suggesting is that every time we have thoughts that can be considered stereotypes we need to be able to recognize them and pause. We should be working towards having this kind of metacognition, the knowledge about how sex differences play out in responding to rejection and sexual conflict and how likely we are to express aggression and violence. That knowledge alone can help us pause before they hurt another person,” explained Dr. Lindner.

She believes that we need to change our approach towards men and boys in our society.

“We need to teach them to be more introspective and understand their emotions much better. That is one of the key things in curbing aggression, understanding why they have it,” concludes Dr. Lindner in her interview with N1.

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