The Psychology of Hunting

The Psychology of Hunting

Though studies show 79 percent of Americans support ethical hunting, a Google Search for “the psychology of hunting” actually pulls up many Internet articles claiming that hunters are mentally ill, sadistic, psychopathic, sociopathic and criminals—virtually nothing positive.

Anyone can have an opinion, but hunting opponents go a step further, spinning facts into lies to try and distort perception. Many of them classify themselves as psychologists. This because there are more than  50 different divisions of this profession in the American Psychological Association (APA), which represents U.S. psychologists nationwide—and not all of them are based on objective, scientific inquiry. Look at their credentials. I, too, am a psychologist, but they are far different from mine.

For information about the positive psychology of hunting, I prefer to draw on my own credentials as a retired college professor of psychology and environmental studies and one of the founders of the division of environment, population and conservation psychology in the APA. I also happened to have taught at four universities and three psychology grad schools.

Studies of the Human Psyche Support Hunting's Positive Impacts
Prominent behavioral scientists of the 20th century agreed that hunting is motivated by a natural instinct. They held that ethical hunting not only provides healthy food, but it’s beneficial to mental health.

For example, in his highly-acclaimed study of human aggression, "The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness," psychologist Erich Fromm wrote:  “In the act of hunting, the hunter returns to their natural state, becomes one with the animal, and is freed from the burden of his existential split: to be part of nature and to transcend it by virtue of his consciousness. In stalking the animal he and the animal become equals, even though man eventually shows his superiority... ."

Studies of the motivations of hunters by Yale sociologist Dr. Steven Kellert dating to the 1970s show that most hunters say they hunt because they enjoy being outdoors, regardless of whether they get something, which is consistent with Erich Fromm’s conclusions about hunting and oneness with nature. 

Psychiatrist Karl Menninger, MD, who founded the Menninger Foundation, wrote in his book, Sparks:  “Freud fearlessly explored the unconscious layers of the personality, and disclosed the fact that it is no more abnormal for a human to want to kill (in hunting) than it is for a cat to want to kill a mouse or a fox to kill a rabbit.”

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung fished and hunted. For photos of them posing with some of their catches, click here.

Then I conducted a search of the ProQuest Psychology search engine that indexes more than 400 professional journals in the fields of anthropology, psychology and psychiatry. I found 258 articles that used the word "hunting." None of the studies cited report any correlation between ethical hunting and psychopathology. I was not surprised.

I followed this up by contacting the research department of the APA to see what it had on file regarding a connection between hunters and psychopathology. I was told it was not aware of any scientific studies supporting the claim that hunters are prone to mental illness.

When University of Nebraska-Omaha criminologist Chris Eskridge compared hunting license sales with violent crime rates on a county-by-county basis throughout the United States, he found that as hunting license sales go up, violent crime goes down. To be sure, as with any group in society there is always someone who behaves illegally or unethically, but the number of those do so is very small.

Proof is in the Paleo Pudding and Other Diet-Based Studies
The very popular Paleo diet—inspired by the best-selling book "The Paleolithic Prescription," and written by Emory University professors Boyd Eaton, MD, anthropologist Majorie Shostak, and psychiatrist-anthropologist Melvin Konner, MD—is based on their years of research to determine the healthiest human diet and lifestyle. In their own words, the professors declared hunting is good for mind and body. They state: “Our 'hunting instinct' has gone awry in 'civilized' society, where the thrill of the chase and the kill are no longer part of our experience and there are no clear avenues of expression except, perhaps to our peril, in the streets and subways of today's urban jungles.”

One of the biggest threats to hunting today is the media, which uses the “If it bleeds, it leads” editorial standard. As a result, media is 10 to 17 times more negative and sensational than positive. People who depend on electronic media for their idea of what the world is like are likely to be anxious and fearful. Media paint a picture of environmental crises such as mass potential wildlife extinctions and climate change that an average viewer can do little to impact. This contributes to a loss of trust and what sociologist Barry Glassner has called “a culture of fear” caused by “well-informed futility” that makes some feel anxious and powerless. And this feeling, in turn, is projected onto animals. As noted psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, said, “Fanaticism always means overcompensated doubt.” 

Many anti-hunters are vegetarians. If that diet makes them healthy, great. While vegetarianism gets a lot of press, actually less than 3 percent of the U.S. population are vegetarians and only .5 percent are vegans. A study conducted in Germany that compared 54 completely vegetarians and 190 predominantly vegetarians with 3,972 non-vegetarians found that:  “Vegetarians displayed elevated prevalence rates for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and somatoform disorders. The findings cannot be explained by socio-demographic characteristics of vegetarians (e.g. higher rates of females, predominant residency in urban areas, high proportion of singles)...  However, there was no evidence for a causal role of vegetarian diet in the etiology of mental disorders.”

A related study by Australian researchers found that vegetarians were 18 percent more likely to report depression and 28 percent more likely to suffer panic attacks and anxiety.

Even more important, in his 2014 article Dr. Hal Herzog, professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, reports that 84 percent of vegetarians and 70 percent of vegans return to eating at least some meat. Herzog and a colleague found that 35 percent of the vegetarians said that declining health was the main reason they reverted back to eating meat.

Hunters Embrace Their Role as Part of Nature
So, if you encounter someone who claims hunters are crazy or mentally ill, cite or refer him to some of this research. In doing so, you not only support hunting, but you may help such people improve their health!

While that last sentence was to be the end of my article, I'd like to share this story. During the l960s, one of the most prominent psychologists was Jerome Bruner, education advisor to President John F. Kennedy and author of the bestseller "The Process of Education." Several years ago I interviewed Dr. Bruner, who was then in his mid-90s, and asked him about hunting. Bruner said that he didn’t hunt anymore as his eyesight was fading, but he still took his dog into the woods every fall in pursuit of ruffed grouse. When the dog came on point, Bruner said that he would walk up and flush the bird. As it flew away, he said he would imagine that he still could bag the bird, which brought to mind many fond memories of time spent in nature.

Editor's Note: James A. Swan, Ph.D. is the author of a book about the psychology of hunting, In Defense of Hunting. As for that Google search the author mentioned in paragraph No. 1, a 2012 article in Forbes magazine written by contributor Frank Miniter exposed the company for censuring information on guns from Google shopping, marking yet another company that seems to support the First Amendment but not the Second!