Post No.: 0087
Violence can be physical, sexual or psychological, and between individuals, groups or self-directed. This post will mainly be concerned with physical violence between individuals, although the above categories often overlap (e.g. physical and sexual violence, or the psychological effects of physical violence).
Strain theory suggests that stressors or risk factors contribute to encouraging violence e.g. a poor upbringing, poor social support, having inadequate coping skills and resources, being bullied (bullies are often victims of bullying themselves), gross levels of inequality and power differentials, having little to lose (e.g. no job, a lack of motivation in getting good school grades because one isn’t confident of one’s future prospects), the culture (e.g. one that rewards rather than condemns aggression), beliefs that are conducive to violence (e.g. seeing retaliation as a necessary way to ‘save face’), and associations with those who encourage violent acts (e.g. gang members that encourage fighting).
Social learning theory suggests that people can also learn from and imitate others (e.g. copying from the media, from peers if they look up to them or see them get rewarded for violence). One could also learn from one’s own personal experiences of being rewarded for violence (e.g. if fighting improves one’s status), thus reinforcing the violent behaviour.
Control theory takes the perspective of why most people don’t resort to violent acts despite there often being a rational cost-benefit advantage for doing so (e.g. it’s often easier and quicker to steal something than work for it). So one direct protective factor is changing the expected value payoffs for violence via legal restraints and enforcement to make violence a less rational option (i.e. by seeking out and severely punishing violence in society e.g. with prison sentences and the removal of some rights for those who commit violent crimes); albeit some extremely desperate people will still see violent acts as rational and thus non-oppressive law enforcement as not a sufficient enough deterrent (e.g. drug addicts who desperately want cash to buy more drugs to feed their addiction), plus not all violence is conducted because it is rational – most violence is not premeditated but in the heat of the moment – the result of a sudden emotional stressor or trigger in conjunction with a ‘fight or flight’ state. Humans are hardly always rational. Even deterrents that go as far as the death penalty don’t seem to make a difference to crime rates.
Indirect protective factors as to why most people don’t resort to violent acts include parents grounding their children for undesired behaviours (i.e. by not rewarding their children’s violent outbursts), along with parents leading by a good example (e.g. by not routinely resorting to shouting or aggression towards their children to reprimand them), and avoiding social damage (e.g. not wanting to lose a hard-earned positive reputation at school or work, and there are high stakes for conformity and not being seen as an uncooperative outcast). There can also be personal or religious beliefs for condemning violence (e.g. guilt and empathy), and the exercising of self-control to a degree (being able to pause and think of the consequences – but self-control is a limited resource that eventually runs out). Woof.
Other contributors or correlates to violence include alcohol and many other recreational drugs, which increase the likelihood of violence in some people due to their effects on reducing inhibitions and decreasing the ability to rationally think of the consequences. Alcohol use is a major factor in a lot of violence. Alcohol is associated with violence in movies too so even the exposure to alcohol-related images and words is enough to arguably prime aggressive thoughts and behaviours.
Genes and the environment, and GxE (gene-environment interactions), all play a role, although there are no currently known genes that solely contribute to aggression (the known genes that seem to contribute to violence each contribute only a very tiny effect each and pleiotropy (a gene having multiple unrelated effects) means that these genes have other functions apart from aggression too e.g. shaping common personality traits).
Levels of testosterone correlate with violence, but testosterone is also useful for other functions. Playing aggressive sports can obviously trigger aggression (which itself temporarily boosts testosterone). Low serotonin levels has also been linked. Fear can contribute to violence in cases such as the insecurity of ‘losing face’ in front of one’s peers or the perception of a threat, but fear can also inhibit violence in cases such as being worried about the repercussions or anticipating the guilt of hurting someone (thus psychopaths will be less inhibited to hurt someone because they lack guilt). Brain damage can also be a factor.
Psychological distance between aggressor and victim also facilitates cruelty and harm (e.g. dehumanising groups of people, Internet trolling, road rage). Violent words, lyrics and/or imagery, which contribute to shaping a violent culture (e.g. one that emphasises and honours male machismo or is full of gun crime) perhaps don’t help. Other potential factors include pain, discomfort or frustration (e.g. heat (a major correlate when comparing the violent crime rates of various countries or different seasons), overcrowding, air pollution, sustaining an injury).
So there are risk factors that encourage violence, as well as protective factors that discourage violence, in the genes as well as one’s upbringing and environment/situational factors, that all contribute complexly to violent behaviour or the prevention of it.
I will need to point out that some of the above factors are correlations and not necessarily causations, but many are strong and consistent correlations and may prove to be confidently causal if ever given an ethical opportunity to isolate and test these variables in controlled experiments, or with large enough randomised sample sizes. (A correlation not necessarily being a causation doesn’t mean that a correlation may not later prove to be a causation with further research.) For now and according to the best of our knowledge today though, it’s nevertheless worth bearing all the above factors, and more, in mind to do our best to prevent or mitigate violence in our societies.