Developing Believable Characters: The Latest Research on Violence


"The perception that people with mental illness are
more violent is a myth reinforced by the media."

To understand the violence inherent in human society, especially the many mass shootings in our country in addition to our world's-highest murder rate, it's important that screenwriters, authors and journalists understand what causes - and what doesn't cause - someone to kill someone else.
One of the common misconceptions with both the public, journalists, writers of fiction and screenplays is that mental illness is a major cause of violence, especially murder.
This conclusion does not compute, to quote science officer Spock of the Starship Enterprise.
In fact, research shows that the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators.

As writers, we each have a responsibility to present accurate and true profiles of killers and mass murderers in our work.  By stating or implying that anyone who commits a violent act is mentally ill does a huge disservice to those who do suffer emotional and mental problems while diverting our reader's and viewer's attention from the true causes of violence.

This post offers a brief, partial overview of the latest research into what causes and does not cause violence in our culture.  It's not intended to be comprehensive as much as quick review that offers writers of all ilk an understanding of how complex violence between humans in all societies is.

After reading this I'm sure you'll agree that using the crutch that violence is due to mental health issues is the lazy and essentially dishonest way to portray these problems whether in fiction, on film or as a journalist.

Here's the overview.  A link to each study is included after each summary.

1. Gun violence and mental illness: perception vs. reality

 "Mass murderers with mental health problems. . . are not typical."

A group of international scholars, including co-author Vickie Mays of UCLA, analyzed dozens of epidemiological studies on gun violence and mental illness and compared the results to media-fueled public perceptions about the dangerousness of mentally ill individuals. 

The researchers found that
  • mass murderers with mental health problems, while they receive a tremendous amount of media attention, are not typical of those who commit violent crimes, and the
  • vast majority of those with serious mental illness do not engage in violent acts.
A history of violent behavior, especially with criminal justice involvement, and other behavioral indicators of risk are much stronger predictors of future gun violence than having a serious mental health diagnosis, the researchers say, echoing the findings of the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy, a group of national experts on gun-violence prevention and mental illness that released a set of federal and state policy recommendations in December 2013.

Such risk indicators include
  • being subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order,
  • having been convicted of a violent misdemeanor,
  • having two or more driving-under-the-influence convictions in a five-year period, and
  • having two or more controlled-substance convictions in five years.
"A person with serious mental illness is far more likely
to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator."

2. Those with mental illness far more likely to harm themselves
An estimated 3.5 million people with serious mental illnesses are going without treatment every year," said Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "But even if schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression were cured, our society's problem of violence would diminish by only about 4 percent.
  • A person with serious mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator.
  • Mental health disorders are much more strongly linked to self-harm or suicide than to violence against others.
  • Approximately six of every 10 gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, which points to failures in both the mental health care system and firearms regulation, according to the authors.
  • The researchers also note that accurately predicting who will commit mass killings is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Source:  Materials provided by University of California - Los Angeles, original article written by Stuart Wolpert.  Jeffrey W. Swanson, E. Elizabeth McGinty, Seena Fazel, Vickie M. Mays. Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy. Annals of Epidemiology, 2014


3.  Inside the minds of murderers:  Impulsive murderers much more mentally impaired than those who kill strategically
The minds of murderers who kill impulsively, often out of rage, and those who carefully carry out premeditated crimes differ markedly both psychologically and intellectually, according to a new study by Northwestern Medicine® researcher Robert Hanlon.
  • "Impulsive murderers were much more mentally impaired, particularly cognitively impaired, in terms of both their intelligence and other cognitive functions," said Hanlon, senior author of the study and associate professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
  • "The predatory and premeditated murderers did not typically show any major intellectual or cognitive impairments, but many more of them have psychiatric disorders," he said.
Published online in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, the study is the first to examine the neuropsychological and intelligence differences of murderers who kill impulsively versus those who kill as the result of a premeditated strategic plan.
  • Compared to impulsive murderers, premeditated murderers are almost twice as likely to have a history of mood disorders or psychotic disorders -- 61 percent versus 34 percent.
  • Compared to predatory murderers, impulsive murderers are more likely to be developmentally disabled and have cognitive and intellectual impairments -- 59 percent versus 36 percent.
  • Nearly all of the impulsive murderers have a history of alcohol or drug abuse and/or were intoxicated at the time of the crime -- 93 percent versus 76 percent of those who strategized about their crimes.
Story Source: Materials provided by Northwestern University. The original item was written by Erin White. R. E. Hanlon, M. Brook, J. Stratton, M. Jensen, L. H. Rubin. Neuropsychological and Intellectual Differences Between Types of Murderers: Affective/Impulsive Versus Predatory/ Instrumental (Premeditated) Homicide. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 2013


4.  Nearly one in ten U.S. adults have impulsive anger issues and access to guns
An estimated 9 percent of adults in the US have a history of impulsive, angry behavior and have access to guns, according to a new study. The study also found that an estimated 1.5 percent of adults report impulsive anger and carry firearms outside their homes.

An estimated 9 percent of adults in the U.S. have a history of impulsive, angry behavior and have access to guns, according to a study published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law. The study also found that an estimated 1.5 percent of adults report impulsive anger and carry firearms outside their homes.

Angry people with ready access to guns are typically young or middle-aged men, who at times lose their temper, smash and break things, or get into physical fights, according to the study co-authored by scientists at Duke, Harvard, and Columbia universities.
Study participants who owned six or more firearms were also far more likely than people with only one or two firearms to carry guns outside the home and to have a history of impulsive, angry behavior.
"As we try to balance constitutional rights and public safety regarding people with mental illness, the traditional legal approach has been to prohibit firearms from involuntarily-committed psychiatric patients," said Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D., professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medicine and lead author of the study. "But now we have more evidence that current laws don't necessarily keep firearms out of the hands of a lot of potentially dangerous individuals."
The study found little overlap between participants with serious mental illnesses and those with a history of impulsive, angry behavior and access to guns.  "Gun violence and serious mental illness are two very important but distinct public health issues that intersect only at their edges," Swanson said.

Researchers found that anger-prone people with guns were at elevated risk for a range of fairly common psychiatric conditions such as
  • personality disorders,
  • alcohol abuse,
  • anxiety, and
  • post-traumatic stress, while
  • only a tiny fraction suffered from acute symptoms of major disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Fewer than one in 10 angry people with access to guns had ever been admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric or substance abuse problem, the study found. As a result, most of these individuals' medical histories wouldn't stop them from being able to legally purchase guns under existing mental-health-related restrictions.

"Very few people in this concerning group suffer from the kinds of disorders that often lead to involuntary commitment and which would legally prohibit them from buying a gun," said Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., professor of health care policy at Harvard and principal investigator of the NCS-R survey.

Kessler, Swanson and co-authors reason that looking at a prospective gun buyer's history of misdemeanor convictions, including violent offenses and multiple convictions for impaired driving, could be more effective at preventing gun violence in the U.S. than screening based on mental health treatment history.

Story Source: Materials provided by Duke University Medical Center. Jeffrey W. Swanson, Nancy A. Sampson, Maria V. Petukhova, Alan M. Zaslavsky, Paul S. Appelbaum, Marvin S. Swartz, Ronald C. Kessler. Guns, Impulsive Angry Behavior, and Mental Disorders: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 2015


5.  Substance Abuse, Schizophrenia And Risk Of Violence

Schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses do not appear
to be responsible for any additional risk of violence 
above the increased risk associated with substance abuse.

A study by Seena Fazel of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford and colleagues demonstrated that there is an association between schizophrenia and violence, but find schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses do not appear to be responsible for any additional risk of violence above the increased risk associated with substance abuse.

Many mental health charities and clinicians specializing in mental health share this opinion – arguing that the perception that people with mental illness are more violent is a myth reinforced by the media, contributing to a social stigma around mental illness that damages many people and prevents understanding.
Source: Materials provided by Public Library of Science.  Fazel et al. Schizophrenia and Violence: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS Medicine, 2009

6.  Bipolar disorder does not increase risk of violent crime

"Individuals with bipolar disorder in violent crime statistics 
is almost entirely attributable to concurrent substance abuse."

A new study by researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Oxford University suggests that bipolar disorder -- or manic-depressive disorder -- does not increase the risk of committing violent crime. Instead, the over-representation of individuals with bipolar disorder in violent crime statistics is almost entirely attributable to concurrent substance abuse.
  • 21% of patients with bipolar disorder and a concurrent diagnosis of severe substance abuse (alcohol or illegal drugs) were convicted of violent crimes, compared to 
  • 5% of those with bipolar disorder but without substance abuse, and 
  • 3% among general public control individuals. 
"Unwarranted fear and stigmatization of mental illness increases the alienation of people with psychiatric disorder and makes them less inclined to seek the care they need," co-author N. Långström comments.
Source:  Materials provided by Karolinska Institutet.  S. Fazel, P. Lichtenstein, M. Grann, G. M. Goodwin, N. Langstrom. Bipolar Disorder and Violent Crime: New Evidence From Population-Based Longitudinal Studies and Systematic Review. Archives of General Psychiatry, 2010

3.  No association between media violence and societal violence.
Since the 1920s, scholars and politicians have blamed violence in movies and other media as a contributing factor to rising violence in society. Recently the responses to mass shootings in Aurora, CO and at Sandy Hook Elementary followed this theme as media consumption came into the equation.

But can consumption of violent media really be a factor in real-world violence? A study published in the Journal of Communication by a researcher Christopher Ferguson at Stetson University found that there were no associations between media violence consumption in society and societal violence.

Ferguson conducted two studies that raised the question if whether the incidence of violence in media correlates with actual violence rates in society.
  1. The first study looked at movie violence and homicide rates between 1920 and 2005. 
  2. The second study looked at video game violence consumption and its relationship to youth violence rates from 1996-2011.
Ferguson found that societal consumption of media violence is not predictive of increased violence rates in society.

For the first study, independent raters evaluated the frequency and graphicness of violence in popular movies from 1920-2005. These were correlated to homicide rates for the same years. Overall, movie violence and homicide rates were not correlated. However, during the mid-20th century, movie violence and homicide rates did appear to correlate slightly, which may have led some to believe a larger trend was at play. That correlation reversed after 1990 so that movie violence became correlated with fewer homicides. Prior to the 1940s, movie violence was similarly related to fewer homicides, not more.

In the second study on video game violence, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) ratings were used to estimate the violent content of the most popular video games for the years 1996-2011. These estimates of societal video game violence consumption were correlated against federal data on youth violence rates during the same years. Violent video game consumption was strongly correlated with declines in youth violence. However, it was concluded that such a correlation is most likely due to chance and does not indicate video games caused the decline in youth violence.

This study is the first to suggest there is little evidence that this has caused a problem for society.
"Society has a limited amount of resources and attention to devote to the problem of reducing crime. There is a risk that identifying the wrong problem, such as media violence, may distract society from more pressing concerns such as poverty, education and vocational disparities and mental health," Ferguson said. "This research may help society focus on issues that really matter and avoid devoting unnecessary resources to the pursuit of moral agendas with little practical value."
Source: Materials provided by International Communication Association.  Ferguson, C.J. Does media violence predict societal violence. It depends on what you look at and when. Journal of Communication, 2014

7.  Brain Chemicals Involved In Aggression Identified

"Brain structures involved in making moral judgments
are often damaged in violent individuals.

School shootings. Muggings. Murder. Road rage. After decreasing for more than a decade, the rate of violent crime in the United States has begun to inch up again [2007]. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, violent crime rose 2.3 percent in 2005 and 1.9 percent in 2006, the first steady increase since 1993.

And new studies are helping scientists gain deeper insight into the neurobiology of aggression and violence.
  • One analysis of brain imaging studies has revealed that brain structures involved in making moral judgments are often damaged in violent individuals.
  • Another study involving teenage boys suggests that disruptions in a brain region linked to impulsive, aggressive behavior may underlie a certain type of violent, reactive behavior.
  • Still other research has shed new light on the role that certain brain chemicals play in aggressive behavior, including in maternal aggression.
  • And new animal studies reveal that aggressive encounters cause changes in the brains of aggressors as well as their victims that increase vulnerability to depression and immune-related illnesses.
"Violence in our society is a major concern, indeed, a national health problem," says Craig Ferris, PhD, of Northeastern University in Boston. "Understanding the confluence of events, both environmental and biological, that trigger a violent act has been the focus of educators, health professionals, and scientists for decades.

"New imaging technologies and animal models have helped neuroscientists identify changes in brain neurobiology associated with inappropriate aggressive behavior," he says.

After analyzing data from 47 independent brain imaging studies, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that the rule-breaking behavior common to people with antisocial, violent, and psychopathic tendencies may result partly from damage to the neural circuitry in the brain that underlies moral decision-making.

Scientists have long known that damage to certain regions of the brain, most notably the prefrontal cortex, can result in violent behavior. More recently, imaging studies have identified the neural circuits that become activated in the brains of normal, healthy individuals during moral decision-making.

They found that antisocial individuals also tended to have overlapping damage in brain structures involved in making moral judgments, most notably the dorsal and ventral prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the angular gyrus.
Source:  Materials provided by Society For Neuroscience. "Brain Chemicals Involved In Aggression Identified: May Lead To New Treatments." ScienceDaily, 7 November 2007

5.  Evolution of human ancestors' faces a result of need to weather punches during arguments.
(This study shows that as an animal, our physiology has adapted over time to protect us from being punched.  By over time, we're talking about several million years of evolution.  The implication is that the human animal tends to be a violent animal, that we were in the past and to continue to be violent today, something  that writers must understand when working with character and story. ~ Ed.)

"The prehistoric version of a bar fight (is) what shaped our facial evolution."

An alternative to the previous long-held hypothesis that the evolution of the robust faces of our early ancestors resulted largely from the need to chew hard-to-crush foods such as nuts has been presented by researchers. The prehistoric version of a bar fight -- over women, resources and other slug-worthy disagreements -- are what shaped our facial evolution, new research suggests.

What contributed to the evolution of faces in the ape-like ancestors of humans?
The prehistoric version of a bar fight -- over women, resources and other slug-worthy disagreements, new research from the University of Utah scheduled for publication in the journal Biological Reviews on June 9 suggests.

Credit: © procy_ab / Fotolia
University of Utah biologist David Carrier and Michael H. Morgan, a University of Utah physician, contend that human faces -- especially those of our australopith ancestors -- evolved to minimize injury from punches to the face during fights between males.

The findings in the paper, titled "Protective buttressing of the hominin face," present an alternative to the previous long-held hypothesis that the evolution of the robust faces of our early ancestors resulted largely from the need to chew hard-to-crush foods such as nuts.

"The australopiths were characterized by a suite of traits that may have improved fighting ability, including hand proportions that allow formation of a fist; effectively turning the delicate musculoskeletal system of the hand into a club effective for striking," said Carrier, lead author of the study. "If indeed the evolution of our hand proportions were associated with selection for fighting behavior you might expect the primary target, the face, to have undergone evolution to better protect it from injury when punched."

Male faces more robust than female's
"When modern humans fight hand-to-hand the face is usually the primary target. What we found was that the bones that suffer the highest rates of fracture in fights are the same parts of the skull that exhibited the greatest increase in robusticity during the evolution of basal hominins. These bones are also the parts of the skull that show the greatest difference between males and females in both australopiths and humans. In other words, male and female faces are different because the parts of the skull that break in fights are bigger in males," said Carrier.

"Importantly, these facial features appear in the fossil record at approximately the same time that our ancestors evolved hand proportions that allow the formation of a fist. Together these observations suggest that many of the facial features that characterize early hominins may have evolved to protect the face from injury during fighting with fists," he said.

The latest study by Carrier and Morgan builds on their previous work, which indicate that violence played a greater role in human evolution than is generally accepted by many anthropologists.

"What our research has been showing is that many of the anatomical characters of great apes and our ancestors, the early hominins (such as bipedal posture, the proportions of our hands and the shape of our faces) do, in fact, improve fighting performance," he said.

"Our research is about peace. We seek to explore, understand, and confront humankind's violent and aggressive tendencies. Peace begins with ourselves and is ultimately achieved through disciplined self-analysis and an understanding of where we've come from as a species. Through our research we hope to look ourselves in the mirror and begin the difficult work of changing ourselves for the better."
Source:  Materials provided by University of Utah Health Sciences.  David R. Carrier, Michael H. Morgan. Protective buttressing of the hominin face. Biological Reviews, 2014


6.  Aggression As Rewarding As Sex, Food And Drugs
New research from Vanderbilt University shows for the first time that the brain processes aggression as a reward - much like sex, food and drugs - offering insights into our propensity to fight and our fascination with violent sports like boxing and football.

Credit: iStockphoto/Piotr Sikora
“Aggression occurs among virtually all vertebrates and is necessary to get and keep important resources such as mates, territory and food,” Craig Kennedy, professor of special education and pediatrics, said. “We have found that the ‘reward pathway’ in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved.”

“It is well known that dopamine is produced in response to rewarding stimuli such as food, sex and drugs of abuse,” Maria Couppis, who conducted the study as her doctoral thesis at Vanderbilt, said. “What we have now found is that it also serves as positive reinforcement for aggression.”

“We learned from these experiments that an individual will intentionally seek out an aggressive encounter solely because they experience a rewarding sensation from it,” Kennedy said. “This shows for the first time that aggression, on its own, is motivating, and that the well-known positive reinforcer dopamine plays a critical role.”
Story Source:  Materials provided by Vanderbilt University. "Aggression As Rewarding As Sex, Food And Drugs, New Research Shows."  ScienceDaily, 15 January 2008.



7.  Access to guns increases risk of suicide, homicide

"Access to firearms is a significant risk factor
for men committing suicide and
for women being victims of homicide."

Someone with access to firearms is three times more likely to commit suicide and nearly twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide as someone who does not have access, according to a comprehensive review of the scientific literature conducted by researchers at UC San Francisco.

The meta-analysis, published online Jan. 20, 2013, in Annals of Internal Medicine, pools results from 15 investigations, slightly more than half of which were done after a 1996 federal law prohibited the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from funding research that could be seen as promoting gun control. The review excluded studies that relied on survey data to estimate gun ownership and focused instead on studies that included more specific information about whether victims had access to guns.

All but two of the studies were done in the United States, where gun ownership is higher than anywhere else in the world and firearms cause an estimated 31,000 deaths each year. The review included studies about deaths by suicide and homicide but not accidental deaths.

Researchers found striking gender differences in the data. When firearms were accessible,
  • men were nearly four times more likely to commit suicide than when firearms were not accessible, while
  • women were almost three times more likely to be victims of homicide.
"Our analysis shows that having access to firearms is a significant risk factor for men committing suicide and for women being victims of homicide," said Andrew Anglemyer, PhD, MPH, an expert in study design and data analytics in Clinical Pharmacy and Global Health Sciences at UCSF, who is also a U.S. Army veteran. "Since empirical data suggest that most victims of homicide know their assailants, the higher risk for women strongly indicates domestic violence."

Firearms play a significant role in both suicide and homicide, accounting for slightly more than half of all suicide deaths and two-thirds of homicide deaths, according to 2009 data from the 16-state National Violent Death Reporting System, which is run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 75 percent of suicides occur in the victims' homes, and a similar percentage of female homicide victims die in their homes. The figure is about 45 percent for men.
Story Source: Materials provided by University of California - San Francisco. Andrew Anglemyer, Tara Horvath, George Rutherford. The Accessibility of Firearms and Risk for Suicide and Homicide Victimization Among Household Members. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2014

8. Multiple factors, not just mental illness, associated with gun possession, violence among youths
"40 different behavioral factors other than mental illness
that are strongly associated with gun possession."
A study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center and Teachers College, Columbia University, applies the latest computational methodologies to nationally representative data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

Researchers identified more than 40 different behavioral factors other than mental illness that are strongly associated with gun possession. These include heroin use, substance use on school property, having been injured in a fight, and having been a victim of sexual violence.

The study identified more than 40 different behavioral factors other than mental illness that are strongly associated with gun possession. These include
  • heroin use,
  • substance use on school property,
  • having been injured in a fight, and
  • having been a victim of sexual violence.
"Although these results do not imply causality, these computational methods allowed us to approach this complex social issue without bias to better understand risk factors that are likely to simultaneously occur," the researchers write.
Source: Materials provided by Columbia University, Teachers College. Kelly V. Ruggles, Sonali Rajan. Gun Possession among American Youth: A Discovery-Based Approach to Understand Gun ViolencePLoS ONE, 2014.


9.  Girls, boys affected differently by witnessing parental violence
Witnessing violence by parents or a parent's intimate partner can trigger for some children a chain of negative behaviors that follows them from preschool to kindergarten and beyond, according to researchers at Case Western Reserve University.

But girls and boys can be affected differently, researchers concluded. While girls tend to internalize their exposure to such violence, boys are more inclined to act out aggressively, said Megan R. Holmes, PhD, MSW, assistant professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve and the study's lead investigator.

While the reactions may differ, both can result in poor social development, she said.

Findings of the study, produced with researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, were recently reported in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

The researchers linked behavior and exposure to violence in the home at two pivotal points in a child's development: starting preschool, when the focus is on learning social skills; and beginning kindergarten, when children are expected to adjust to more structured academics.

With information from a sample of 1,125 children referred to Child Protective Services for abuse or neglect in the federal Administration for Children and Families' database, researchers tracked how often children saw violence between partners and connected that exposure to behavior problems.
The researchers also analyzed responses from the children's mothers, who were interviewed about their child's aggressive behaviors and social skills, in such areas as assertiveness, cooperation, responsibility and self-control.

Mothers reported violence occurring (such as pushing, choking, slapping or threatening with a gun or knife) from 0 to 192 times when the child was between age 3 and 4, or an average of 17 times per child, in the past year. At the second pivotal point, children from 5 to 7 years old witnessed 0 to 191 instances, or 13 times per child.

Most children fell within normal ranges for social development and aggression, Holmes said. Yet 14 percent were of clinical concern for aggressive behavior, and 46 percent displayed fewer social skills than their peers during preschool. During kindergarten years, aggression increased to 18 percent, and 34 percent still showed fewer social skills. Differences in how boys and girls reacted to seeing violent episodes also emerged.

"The exposure occurring when the child was of school age predicted poor social skills for girls but not for boys," Holmes said. The findings suggest school-age (kindergarten) girls may be more likely to struggle with the social skills needed to interact with others and succeed in school.

Meanwhile, boys were more likely to display aggressive behavior starting in preschool as a result of their exposure to the violence. This set off a chain reaction resulting in both increased aggression and poorer social skills during kindergarten and beyond. The concern is the same: that aggression hinders developing social skills.

"This aggression tends to isolate and prevent healthy interactions with other children," Holmes said.
Early years are critical to a child's development, yet the negative effects may not surface until children are older, she said.

Holmes hopes the information can lead to new interventions at these two pivotal points to help children develop emotionally.
Source:  Materials provided by Case Reserve University.  Megan R. Holmes, Laura A. Voith, and Andrea N. Gromoske. Lasting Effect of Intimate Partner Violence Exposure During Preschool on Aggressive Behavior and Prosocial SkillsJournal of Interpersonal Violence, October 2014

10. Teenage girls and the definition of violence
Perception and gender also factor into the cycle of violence. In a second study, Lohman interviewed teens in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio and found an individual's perception made a difference in how violence was reported.

For example, Lohman said she and her colleague found that in an urban sample "females were a lot more psychologically violent during the teen years than boys. This includes minor acts of violence, like name-calling, hitting, slapping or pushing."

However, the data did not allow researchers to pinpoint how the cycle of violence started with each reported incident and whether the male or female was the perpetrator. But it is not surprising to them to see more teen girls initiating the violence.

In the second study, drug and alcohol use, low parental monitoring, academic difficulties and involvement with antisocial peers were also significant early risk factors for perpetration of dating violence in late adolescence. Differences in race, culture and gender also strongly influenced if teens perpetrated violence.

"Teens who were struggling in school or were using drugs and alcohol were more likely to perpetrate violence," Lohman said. "Furthermore, teens whose parents did not know who their friends were or did not know where their child hung out socially with peers, were more likely to be violent. This underscores the importance of prevention and intervention programs that address peers, families and schools."

Prevention and building relationship skills
The fact that one in four adolescents report dating violence every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, underscores the need for better and earlier prevention, Lohman said. The renewal of the Violence Against Women Act is a step in that direction, but researchers would like to see more education and programming in the schools or after-school programs that focus on the teen years.
Family intervention is also important to preventing psychological violence later in life.

"Working with families who are under particular amounts of stress, whether it is economic or emotional distress, it's working with those families to help lower their stress loads," Neppl said. "We also want to help teach them how to be better parents and focus more on prevention services."

The results from these two studies imply that early warning signs across multiple systems, such as the family, peers and schools, should be addressed in dating violence prevention programs.

"Beyond parenting, I think it starts with peer skill building and peer development. Adults can start by explaining appropriate things to say to other peers and that you don't call peers names. These skills then carry over into future romantic relationships," Lohman said. "The earlier you can teach relationship skills the better. As for romantic relationship skills, I would like to see those taught at least by middle school and beyond."
Source:  Materials provided by Iowa State University.  Brenda J. Lohman, Tricia K. Neppl, Jennifer M. Senia, Thomas J. Schofield. Understanding Adolescent and Family Influences on Intimate Partner Psychological Violence During Emerging Adulthood and Adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2013


11. Brain scans reveal how people 'justify' killing
A new study has thrown light on how people can become killers in certain situations, showing how brain activity varies according to whether or not killing is seen as justified.

Participants in the study led by Monash researcher Dr Pascal Molenberghs, School of Psychological Sciences at Monash University played video games in which they imagined themselves to be shooting innocent civilians (unjustified violence) or enemy soldiers (justified violence). Their brain activity was recorded via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they played.

"When participants imagined themselves shooting civilians compared to soldiers, greater activation was found in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), an important brain area involved in making moral decisions," Dr Molenberghs said.

"The more guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the greater the response in the lateral OFC. When shooting enemy soldiers, no activation was seen in lateral OFC."

"The findings show that when a person is responsible for what they see as justified or unjustified violence, they will have different feelings of guilt associated with that -- for the first time we can see how this guilt relates to specific brain activation," Dr Molenberghs said.
Source:  Materials provided by Monash University.  P. Molenberghs, C. Ogilvie, W. R. Louis, J. Decety, J. Bagnall, P. G. Bain. The neural correlates of justified and unjustified killing: an fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2015


12. Understanding the motivations of mass shooters
A detailed statistical study of mass shootings in the USA suggests that training law enforcement officers to recognize the psychology and behavioral patterns of perpetrators could improve officers’ ability to deal with an on-site shootout or suicide.

The study - "Mass Shooters in the USA, 1966-2010: Differences Between Attackers Who Live and Die" by Adam Lankford, is the first large-scale academic analysis of "active shooters," defined by the US Department of Homeland Security as: "an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area."
  • Approximately 38% of mass shooters commit suicide by their own hand, and 
  • up to 10% successfully orchestrate "suicide by cop." 
In addition, it is thought that a significant percentage of attackers who survive are also clinically suicidal, but they failed in their attempts to die or changed their minds at the last moment although, as Adam Lankford notes, this is difficult to prove because suicidal intent is so difficult to measure. He writes:

"It may be impossible to know how many mass shooters who died at the hands of law enforcement were intentionally orchestrating 'suicide by cop,' or how many of those who were ultimately arrested had originally intended to perish instead."

Previous research suggests that there are fundamental psychological and behavioral differences between offenders who commit murder and offenders who commit murder-suicide. Lankford's study goes further, because it assesses mass shooters as a coherent offender type, basing its analysis on information from one data-set, rather than several different sources, which enhances the accuracy of the regression analysis technique.

The data source for Lankford's study is a New York City Police Department (NYPD) report of mass shooting incidents worldwide from 1966 to 2010. From this, Lankford excluded all non-USA attacks and all attacks that yielded fewer than two casualties. The remaining 185 incidents were then analyzed to determine whether or not the average differences between mass shooters who lived or died could be attributed to mere chance.

Crucially, Lankford points out that attack resolution outcomes may not be solely determined by offenders' individual psychology -- outcomes may also be the product of situational factors when the event is underway. For instance, it was not possible to assess, from the NYPD data, whether law enforcement behavior is essentially a constant in the determination of whether mass shooters live or die, or actually an explanatory variable itself.
Story Source: Materials provided by Taylor & Francis.  Adam Lankford. Mass Shooters in the USA, 1966–2010: Differences Between Attackers Who Live and Die. Justice Quarterly, 2013



13. School Shootings The Result Of Crisis Of Masculinity & Gun Culture
In "Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shootings from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre" (Paradigm, 2008), UCLA professor of education and cultural critic Douglas Kellner argues that school shootings and other acts of mass violence embody a crisis of out-of-control gun culture and male rage, heightened by a glorification of hypermasculinity and violence in the media.

According to Kellner, "the school shooters and domestic terrorists examined in this book all exhibit:
  • male rage,
  • attempt to resolve a crisis of masculinity through violent behavior,
  • demonstrate a fetish for guns or weapons, and
  • represent, in general, a situation of guys and guns amok," Kellner says.
Focusing on last April's Virginia Tech shootings, the 1999 Columbine massacre, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and similar events, Kellner places these apparently isolated killing sprees in the broader context of American culture and society and finds that in each case, the male perpetrators suffered from problems of socialization, alienation and the search for identity in a culture that holds up guns and militarism as potent symbols of masculinity.

Those images, Kellner says, are perpetuated not just by the traditional media — both in news coverage and in the frequent glorification of violence and murder on television programs and in film — but also by new media outlets like the Internet.
Story Source:  Materials provided by University of California, Los Angeles. "School Shootings The Result Of Crisis Of Masculinity, Gun Culture, Professor Argues." ScienceDaily, 18 February 2008


14.  Size Of Brain Linked To Violence
Men who are most prone to rage and violence have significant deficiencies in a brain region that enables most people to learn moral sensibilities and exercise self-restraint, researchers at the University of Southern California have shown.

"Our previous research had shown that convicted murderers -- really violent offenders -- have poorer functioning in the brain's prefrontal cortex," said USC psychopathologist Adrian Raine. In a study published in the Feb. 1 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, Raine and colleagues demonstrate that a physical abnormality may underlie the poor functioning in these violent, antisocial men with lifelong antisocial tendencies, showing that they have prefrontal damage.

The prefrontal cortex is the brain's foremost outer portion, located right behind the eyes. Vital in the orchestration of emotion, arousal and attention, it seems to house the mental machinery that enables people to restrain themselves from acting on all of their impulses. The prefrontal cortex is thought to be central to a child's ability to learn to feel remorse, conscience and social sensitivity.

Using brain-imaging techniques, the researchers measured tissue volume in the prefrontal cortex. They found that the antisocial men had an 11 to 14 percent reduction in the volume of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex compared to normal males -- a deficit of about two teaspoons' worth.

Raine suggests three reasons why prefrontal deficits may cause antisocial personality:
  • First, the region appears to be critical for self-restraint and deliberate foresight. "One thing we know about antisocials is that they do not think ahead," said Raine.
  • Second, it's crucial for learning conditioned responses -- essential, for example, to a child's linking the thought of a misdeed with anxiety over punishment. "Unconscious mental-emotional associations such as these lie at the core of what we call conscience," Raine said.
  • Third, if prefrontal deficits underlie the APD group's low levels of autonomic arousal, these people may unconsciously be trying to compensate through stimulation-seeking. "For some kids," said Raine, "one way of getting an arousal-jag is by robbing stores or beating people up."
This study is the first structural brain-imaging study of any antisocial group, Raine said. 
Clinical, functional and structural findings like Raine's are adding up to a persuasive case that antisocials, growing up from birth or early childhood with prefrontal deficits, have the deck stacked weightily against them.

"We are talking about a predisposition to antisocial behavior," Raine stressed. "Some people who have prefrontal deficits do not become antisocial, and some antisocial individuals do not have prefrontal deficits. It's important to make clear that biology is not destiny."

At present, there is no way to repair large-scale brain damage or deficits. Still, Raine said, society could move to address the problem of biologically based violence. "Let's not forget the physical and sexual abuse or the poverty. That's very important. But I think one reason we have failed to provide effective treatments and interventions is that we have ignored the biological side of the equation.

"We need to focus resources on that small group of kids, the 5 percent, who will commit 50 percent of the crime and violence later in life," Raine continued. "Tackling imprisoned adults is almost a waste of time. Tackling kids when they're juvenile delinquents is far too late. We have to get to these kids much earlier in life, when the brain is more plastic."

Raine, a professor of psychology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is first author of the journal article and author of a book titled "The Psychopathology of Crime: Criminal Behavior as a Clinical Disorder."
Story Source:  Materials provided by University Of Southern California. "Size Of Brain Linked To Violence." ScienceDaily, 3 February 2000

16.  Partner violence linked to specific drinking environments
Researchers have long known that violence toward spouses and partners increases with the frequency and volume of drinking. A study published tin the scientific journal Addiction shows that the context in which drinking occurs also appears to play a role in violence against partners, with male violence being linked to drinking away from home and female violence being linked to drinking at home.

Researchers from the Prevention Research Center in California and Arizona State University, USA, surveyed more than 1500 California couples, gathering information about their drinking in six specific contexts: restaurants, bars, parties at someone else's house, quiet evenings at home, with friends in one's own home, and in parks and other public places.
  • They found that men drinking in bars and at parties away from home and women drinking in parks and public places were both associated with increased male-to-female violence.
  • They also found a link between men drinking during quiet evenings at home and increased female-to-male violence.
From a research perspective, these findings suggest that we need to consider what occurs within different drinking contexts (besides alcohol consumption) that might trigger partner aggression.
Story Source:  Materials provided by Wiley.  Christina Mair, Carol B. Cunradi, Paul J. Gruenewald, Michael Todd and Lillian Remer. Drinking context-specific associations between intimate partner violence and frequency and volume of alcohol consumption. Addiction, September 2013

17.  Stress And Aggression Reinforce Each Other At The Biological Level
Scientists may be learning why it's so hard to stop the cycle of violence. The answer may lie in the nervous system. There appears to be a fast, mutual, positive feedback loop between stress hormones and a brain-based aggression-control center in rats, whose neurophysiology is similar to ours. It may explain why, under stress, humans are so quick to lash out and find it hard to cool down.

The results showed a fast-acting feedback loop; the mechanism works in both directions and raising one variable raises the other. Thus, stress and aggression may be mutually reinforcing, which could explain not only why something like the stress of traffic jams leads to road rage, but also why raging triggers an ongoing stress reaction that makes it hard to stop.

Says lead author Menno Kruk, PhD, "It is well known that these stress hormones, in part by mobilizing energy reserves, prepare the physiology of the body to fight or flee during stress. Now it appears that the very same hormones 'talk back' to the brain in order to facilitate fighting."

Thus, in rapid order, stimulating the hypothalamic attack area led to higher stress hormones and higher stress hormones led to aggression – evidence of the feedback loop within a single conflict.
The resulting vicious cycle "would explain why aggressive behavior escalates so easily and is so difficult to stop once it has started." The findings suggest that even when stress hormones spike for reasons not related to fighting, they may lower attack thresholds enough to precipitate violent behavior. That argument, if extended in research to humans, could ultimately explain on the biological level why a bad day at the office could prime someone for nighttime violence toward family members.

It is speculated that the findings may help also to explain why people who are not typically violent become violent in settings previously associated with aggression: Their stress hormones rise, facilitating the onset of aggression and making them more likely to become violent in seemingly benign settings.
Story Source:  Materials provided by American Psychological Association. "Stress And Aggression Reinforce Each Other At The Biological Level." ScienceDaily, 5 October 2004.

18.  Studies Find Narcissists Most Aggressive When Criticized
Recently, psychologists have debated whether high or low self-esteem underlies violent behavior. New research suggests that the most dangerous people are "those who have a strong desire to regard themselves as superior beings." The research, published in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, demonstrates that actual self-esteem may have little if any relation to aggression.

Narcissists, according to the authors, are emotionally invested in establishing their superiority, yet while they care passionately about being superior to others, they are not convinced that they have achieved this superiority. While high self-esteem entails thinking well of oneself, narcissism involves passionately wanting to think well of oneself. In both studies, narcissism and self-esteem were measured, and participants were given an opportunity to act aggressively toward a neutral third party, toward someone who had insulted them, or toward someone who had praised them.

The psychologists found that the most aggressive respondents in both studies were narcissists who were attacking someone who had given them a bad evaluation. Narcissists were exceptionally aggressive toward anyone who attacked or offended them. In both studies, self-esteem was not related to aggression, suggesting that the relationship between self-esteem and aggressive behavior is small at best.

"Narcissists mainly want to punish or defeat someone who has threatened their highly favorable views of themselves," the authors note. "People who are preoccupied with validating a grandiose self-image apparently find criticism highly upsetting and lash out against the source of it."
Story Source: Materials provided by American Psychological Association. "Threatened Egotism, Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Direct and Misplaced Aggression: Does Self-Love or Self-Hate Lead to Violence?" by Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D., Iowa State University and Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., Case Western Reserve University, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. .

19.  Almost one in three US adults owns at least one gun


Owners more than twice as likely to be part of 'social gun culture'

Almost one in three US adults owns at least one gun, and they are predominantly white married men over the age of 55, reveals research published online in the journal Injury Prevention.

Gun owners are are more than twice as likely as non-gun owners to be associated with an active 'social gun culture' where either their family or friends own guns or their social activities involve use of guns, the findings show.
  • Gun death rates in the US have remained high since 2000. In 2013, gun violence killed 33,636 people and injured 84,258 others in the US.
Previous research indicates that gun ownership increases the risk of death from gun violence. There are thought to be about 300 million guns currently in use in the US.

The researchers analysed the responses of 4000 nationally representative US adults to a survey on gun ownership and social activities with friends and family that involved guns.
  • Almost one in three (29.1%) respondents said they owned at least one gun. Gun owners were predominantly white men over the age of 55, and married.
Gun owners were more than twice as likely as non-gun owners to be associated with an active social gun culture where either their family or friends owned guns or their social activities involved use of guns.

Among those who said they did not own a gun only 6.1% said they were exposed to social gun culture, while the prevalence of gun ownership was 32.3% among those who were exposed to this.
Rates of gun ownership and gun deaths were higher in states with weak gun control policies.
  • Corresponding to the variation in deaths from gun violence, gun ownership rates varied widely, with the lowest rate in Delaware at 5.2%, and the highest in Alaska at 61.7%.
  • Elsewhere, Vermont had the highest rates of gun ownership in the north east of the country (28.8%) as did North Dakota in the Midwest (47.9%) and Arkansas in the south (57.9%).
  • Gun ownership rates were 50% higher in those states with high gun death rates as they were in those with low gun death rates, the findings showed.
"The link between social gun culture and gun ownership also suggests one avenue through which modern conceptions of the primacy of gun ownership, despite the potential public health consequences, are reinforced," note the researchers.

"Although notions of protection of one's family and property originally justified gun ownership, [this] is today sustained in public consciousness much more through calls to constitutionally enshrined social values, reinforced intermittently by outrage at efforts to limit widespread gun availability," they add.

The results suggest that the prevailing social gun culture in the US should be factored in to the planning and implementation of prudent gun policies designed to reduce the harms associated with gun ownership, they conclude.
Story Source:  Materials provided by BMJ.  Bindu Kalesan, Marcos D Villarreal, Katherine M Keyes, Sandro Galea. Gun ownership and social gun culture. Injury Prevention, 2015

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