Violence is a leading worldwide public health problem. More than 1.6 million people lose their lives to violence each year (WHO). The World Health Organization defines violence as: The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development or deprivation.
Violent behavior is a product of the interaction between biological, psychological and social forces and processes. Some researchers believe that the neurological deficits associated with violent tendencies are genetically and/or physically based, whereas others believe that there is some genetic-environmental interaction that impacts the development of the neurological underpinnings of violence. Several researchers suggest that violence is learned; whereas other studies indicate that violence often is mediated by psychosocial factors such as impulse control, poverty, perceptions of joblessness, access to guns, use of drugs and alcohol, and peer influences.
According to James Gilligan, the main social and economic causes of violence are those that “divide the population into the superior and the inferior, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor. The more highly unequal a society is, the higher its rates of violence.” Gilligan proposes that a greater level of equality is essential in order to curb both interpersonal violence and collective political violence.
What happens in a child’s early life that leads to a person being violent?
Gilligan observed that individuals who have committed the most serious acts of violence have usually suffered from abuse or neglect, often at the hands of their own parents. They have also experienced overwhelming levels of shame and humiliation; a result of the ultimate withdrawal of love. Pride is self-love; shame is the lack of self-love. There are only two possible sources of love for the self: from one’s own self or from other people. Violent individuals typically come from families and environments where they did not receive any love and were left feeling that they are not worthy; consequently they were unable to develop the capacity for self-love. Neglect may be the most damaging form of child abuse leading to the most extreme form of shaming.
In early childhood, the overwhelming stress experienced in maltreatment experiences is associated with adverse brain development and with alterations of biological stress systems consistent with those found in violent individuals. If a child lacks a stable emotional attachment with, and touch from, a primary caregiver and/or lacks spontaneous interaction with peers, brain development for both caring behavior and cognitive capabilities is damaged in a lasting fashion.
What triggers someone to act violently?
Often individuals will report being provoked to violence by a feeling of being disrespected. In committing an act of violence, the individual often feels they are reclaiming respect, which is usually how they interpret their victim’s fear. Typically, people think about self-preservation in terms of physical survival. However the most violent individuals do not connect self-preservation with physical survival. If they feel they are in danger of being overwhelmingly humiliated or having their identity destroyed by psychological means, they are willing to sacrifice their body if they believe that is the only means by which they can rescue or resurrect their mental self.
At these times, the violent person experiences a split between the mind and the body. This split is reflected in a thought processes, referred to as the ”voice,” that is often experienced as though another person were imparting information to the individual about him or herself as well as about other people. These types of thoughts often stem from a person’s early life experience in interaction with his or her genetic predisposition.
A. Beck and Pretzer (2005) state it this way:
Our seminal insight was the observation that the content of individuals’ thoughts influences their emotional and behavioral response… Thoughts of being wronged or mistreated produce anger and an impulse to retaliate. (p.68)… When the adversary is demonized (viewed as different, alien, subhuman, and evil), this intensifies the sense that violence is justified and reduces inhibitions about violence and killing (p. 72)… The greater the extent to which additional cognitions legitimize a violent response, the greater the likelihood of violence (p. 71)
In our research at the Glendon Association, the five types of thoughts found to predispose violent behavior are: (1) paranoid/suspicious (e.g. they are out to get you); (2) persecuted misfit (e.g. they are going to make a fool of you); (3) self-depreciating/ pseudo-independent (e.g. you have to take care of yourself because no one else will); (4) overtly aggressive (e.g. violence is the ticket), and (5) self-aggrandizing (e.g. you are number one). The Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts (Adolescent and Adult) is made up of items representing these five categories of thoughts.
- Doucette-Gates, A., Firestone, R.W., & Firestone, L. (1999): Assessing Violent Thoughts: The Relationship Between Thought Processes and Violent Behavior.