Violence Research Paper

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The term violence is used to describe animal and human behavior that threatens to cause or causes severe harm to a target. Most animal studies emphasize variations in aggression and use the concept of extreme aggression (rather than violence) to denote the most serious and injurious behavior. In studying human behavior, violence and aggression are frequently used as synonyms, with violence marked by an extra degree of excessiveness. In some cases, the choice of the term ‘‘aggression’’ or ‘‘violence’’ is a matter or preference or convention. For example, aggression is most commonly used to describe young children’s behavior while such behavior in adolescents is called youth violence. Violence tends to be the preferred term for describing classes of behavior or phenomenon (e.g., domestic violence, media violence, sports violence) without specific reference to the degree of severity involved.

Different authorities have been extremely variable in their willingness to include a range of actions under the heading of violence. Indeed, there has been much controversy about the term and just what actions should be covered. Some have offered more limited definitions based on constraints such as intentionality, legality, and nature of targets. Each limitation provides a more specific definition with associated advantages and disadvantages. For instance, many definitions of both aggression and violence specify that harm be intentional. Accidentally causing serious injury generally is not considered an act of violence in both common discourse and legal proceedings. However, specifying intentionality poses measurement challenges because violence can no longer be judged by merely observing a behavior; rather, the mental state of the person must be assessed or inferred.

Limiting the definition of violence to ‘‘illegal behaviors’’ that cause harm or injury is consistent with legal guidelines. Such a definition is useful from a policy and control perspective because it covers actions generally considered as violent, including forcible rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault, gang violence, and homicide. A problem with this definition is that the same behavior may be judged illegal or legitimate depending on specific cultural and historical conditions. From this perspective, a behavior would only be considered violent if there were official sanctions against it.

Some definitions of violence include only behavior that is designed to harm others (or animate beings). This focus emphasizes the antisocial and immoral nature of violence as an act against others and society. It is consistent with most contemporary criminal definitions of violence. However, it excludes the self as a target of harm and injury, which is inconsistent with public health definitions of violence that generally include harm to self. Other definitions construe the target even more broadly, extending it to include inanimate objects (e.g., destruction of property).


Violence is not one behavioral pattern but several. The multifaceted and complex nature of violence has led to a number of proposed guidelines and classification schemes for studying its component parts. Behavioral scientists have worked to develop classifications by grouping together meaningful categories of violence that share common characteristics related to etiology and function. One approach has been to classify violence according to the underlying motivation of the aggressor. A frequently used distinction is between hostile and instrumental motivation. In hostile violence, the major goal is to inflict harm or injury. In other words, hurting is an end in itself. In instrumental violence, actions may cause harm but are not motivated by the desire to cause harm per se. Rather, they are motivated by goals such as taking resources from others. In both cases, this distinction depends on the individual’s intent, not on the act itself.

Although not conceptually clean, this distinction has proved useful. Certain types of violence such as armed robbery, murder-for-hire, and terrorism generally are well planned, goaldirected, instrumental actions. Offenders are acting to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. Many prominent models of criminal behavior emphasize the rational choice component of crime (e.g., Cornish and Clarke). This type of planned behavior is distinguished from more impulsive and hostile violent actions often characterized by loss of control, irrationality, and rage. Such impulsive violent behaviors are frequently labeled emotional violence and are linked with emotions such as anger and fear. Biological models of violence have identified distinct neural patterns that characterize each type of violence. For example, the ‘‘low-arousal’’ aggressor more likely to commit instrumental violence is underreactive and responds sluggishly to stressors. In contrast, the ‘‘high-arousal’’ aggressor who is more prone to hostile violence tends to be hypervigiliant and easily frustrated (Niehoff).

Another distinction between classes of violence that bears some similarity to the hostile/ instrumental classification is the difference between defensive and offensive violence. This distinction has been fundamental to animal studies of aggression, with defensive and offensive aggression linked to stimulation of different areas of the brain. In humans, instrumental aggression is roughly analogous to predatory aggression although it is limited to intraspecies behavior. In other words, when humans kill animals for food it is generally not considered offensive violence in the same sense as killing a rival gang member. Similarly, emotional or hostile aggression in humans could be considered the analogue of defensive aggression in response to a threat or perceived threat. Studies of children have found differences in propensity for proactive aggression and reactive aggression, although some children score high on both types of aggression (Dodge and Coie). This work provides some empirical support for distinguishing between offensive violence that is unprovoked and defensive violence that is a reaction to another’s provocation.

Clearly, different classification schemes serve different purposes. In everyday usage, violence is often divided into distinct classes based on criteria useful for description, dialogue, and public policy. Violence can be grouped into categories based on variables such as the agents of violence (e.g., gangs, youth, collective groups), the victims of violence (e.g., women, children, minority groups), the relationship between aggressor and victim (e.g., interpersonal, nonrelated), perceived causality (e.g., psychopathological, situational, learned), and type of harm (e.g., physical, psychological, sexual). These criteria are frequently combined to examine particular forms of violence, such as psychological abuse of women in intimate relationships, youth sexual violence, instrumental collective violence, and so on.

Some efforts have focused on developing classification systems that can guide prevention, intervention, and control efforts. Tolan and Guerra describe four types of youth violence: situational, relationship, predatory, and psychopathological. This is not an exclusive classification proposed to cover all types of violence, but rather provides some conceptual organization for structuring efforts to prevent or reduce violence. Each distinct type of violence is associated with different causal mechanisms and warrants a different type of intervention. For example, relationship violence is influenced more by anger and conflict than predatory acts of violence such as armed robbery of a stranger. Consequently, biochemical interventions that block anger arousal or conflict-resolution training programs that teach anger management skills may have some influence on relationship violence but much less influence on predatory violence.

The Causes of Violence

As historical and cross-cultural records demonstrate, our evolutionary history is laced with examples of violence. Indeed, paleontological data reveal a rather continuous stream of human violence dating back thousands of years. It is clear that violence is not restricted to early historical periods or particular cultural groups. Despite recent concerns in the United States and elsewhere over spiraling violence rates, available data suggest that there is actually less violence now than in ancient times. From an evolutionary perspective, human violence may represent a context-sensitive solution to particular problems of social living that may ebb and flow in accordance with changing conditions. In reviewing these adaptive functions, Buss and Shackelford describe seven problems for which violence may have evolved as a solution: (1) co-opting the resources of others; (2) defending against attack; (3) inflicting costs on same-sex rivals; (4) negotiating status and power hierarchies; (5) deterring rivals from future aggression; (6) deterring males from sexual infidelity; and (7) reducing resources expended on genetically unrelated children.

Against a backdrop of adaptive violence, there are still many other factors that play a role in the ontogeny of violence and help explain variations in violence across individuals and social groups. In most cases, a number of different factors converge to increase the likelihood of violent behavior. These factors can be divided into roughly three groups: (1) innate factors; (2) socialization factors; and (3) situational factors.

Innate Factors

Early efforts to unveil differences between violent and nonviolent individuals began with attempts to assign precise neural locations to a range of behaviors including violence. Known as phrenology, this approach assigned high priority to the innate and presumably defective aspects of individual makeup. The idea that behaviors are linked to physical characteristics also drove some of the first criminological efforts to understand the etiology of violence. Perhaps the most well-known work is that of nineteenth-century Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, who popularized the notion that violent individuals possessed distinct physical features indicative of primitive or inferior development, known as atavisms.

A concern over physical features gave way to the far more powerful influence of genetics. Although there was much resistance toward biology-as-destiny approaches, more and more geneticists were taking over the reigns of biology. However, much of the early writing on the genetic underpinnings of violence failed to pinpoint the precise causal mechanisms. The lack of a genetic road map did not unravel efforts to search for the innate determinants of aggression. Support for the idea that aggression was hardwired from birth came from a number of different encampments.

Beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, ethologists saw aggression and violence as a response to the call of internal mechanisms or instincts. This emphasis found good company in the Freudian psychoanalysts. They saw aggression as derived from an inborn tendency to destroy. Like all instincts, it builds up over time and must ultimately be discharged in either acceptable or unacceptable ways. This pressure is made worse by frustration. The idea that aggression and violence are linked to frustration had a significant impact on the field and was followed by models emphasizing the frustrationaggression connection (Dollard et al.). Although still grounded in a drive model of behavior, this work also provided evidence that violence can be learned. Still, innate drive theories persisted and were later popularized by the writings of Konrad Lorenz. According to Lorenz, aggression was not simply a response to an instinct but was itself an innate driving force, notable for both its spontaneity and centrality to species preservation.

But drive theories found themselves caught up in an empty vessel. There was little evidence to indicate that aggressive energy builds up until it is released. Further, while the notion of drive or instinct may have some descriptive utility, it offered little in the way of specifying the precise internal mechanisms that underlie violence and ran the risk of engendering a pessimistic attitude about prevention. Fortunately, scientific advances in understanding neuranatomy, brain chemistry, and genetic transmission allowed for increasingly greater precision in understanding the biology of violence, leading us farther from the notion of violence as inevitable instinct. The role of key areas of the brain in regulating emotion and behavior is now well established. Violence has also been associated with some kinds of brain damage from birth trauma, tumors, or head injury. However, rather than acting alone, the biological and social environments seem to exert reciprocal influences.

For example, threat perceptions involve neurotransmitters that partially determine an individual’s sensitivity to environmental stimuli— some more reactive, others less so. But environmental exposure to violence, danger, or abuse during the early years can quickly overload the brain’s alarm system, creating adolescents who are hypervigilant to stress and overreact to environmental cues (Pynoos, Steinberg, and Ornitz). Hypervigilance to threats may also explain some of the inconclusive findings linking testosterone and aggression. It appears that testosterone is linked to specific types of aggression, notably the tendency to ‘‘fight back’’ in a more defensive or reactive fashion related to heightened threat perception rather than the tendency to start fights or engage in offensive aggression (Olweus, Mattson, and Low).

Socialization Factors

Not only does the social environment serve as a trigger for biological development, it also provides a context for learning appropriate behaviors. Whatever propensity for violence is written on an individual’s biological birth certificate, it is clearly molded and shaped through interactions with others. There is a sizable body of evidence showing that early socialization across multiple contexts accounts for much of the individual differences in later violent behavior.

Different mechanisms have been implicated in the learning of violence. Early theories stressed the importance of reinforcement. A young child wants a toy, but his playmate will not relinquish it. The boy pushes and grabs the toy and the playmate relents. Aggression works. If followed by reinforcement, both mild aggression and serious violence are likely to increase. Such reinforcement is not limited to tangible objects; it can include outcomes such as attention, status, and advantageous positioning in the peer status hierarchy, similar to some of the adaptive functions of aggression discussed previously.

In addition to the role of reinforcement, early formulations of social learning theory emphasized the role of observational learning (Bandura). Individuals who see others use and obtain rewards for violence, especially others whom they admire, are more likely to imitate them and behave violently under similar circumstances. As a psychological mechanism, modeling can also explain variation in violence levels across different social groups and cultures. As violence becomes more legitimate in a social group, it is more likely that members will conform to these emerging group norms. Some observers have described a ‘‘code of violence’’ that characterizes the behavior of many inner-city males. Status is associated with willingness to use violence, and children emulate the toughness and violence of older male role models.

Much of the concern about the links between exposure to media to violence and aggression derives from social learning theory. Research with children has clearly demonstrated a correlation with exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. Children who watch more violent movies and television are more likely to engage in similar behaviors both as children and adults. Long-term exposure to media violence fosters later violence through several mechanisms. In addition to teaching aggressive attitudes and behaviors, it also seems to desensitize viewers to violence, making it more acceptable. People who watch a lot of televised violence also show exaggerated fears of violence, perhaps making them more hypervigilant and susceptible to reactive outbursts.

The media is but one socialization context that can promote the learning of violence. Research has shown that both parents and peers can be a powerful force in shaping children’s behavior. Lack of attention to children’s behavior and inconsistent parental discipline and monitoring of activities have been consistently related to the development of aggressive and violent behavior patterns. Extremely harsh and abusive parenting has also been linked to later aggression. Stated simply, ‘‘violence begets violence.’’ Equally important is the failure of positive encouragement for prosocial and nonviolent behaviors. Many parents ignore children’s efforts at solving conflicts peacefully or managing frustration. Oversights such as these may inadvertently teach children that aggressive acts alone are worthy of notice.

Peers also exert an influence from an early age, but seem to become most important during adolescence. Perhaps one of the most robust findings in the delinquency literature is that antisocial and violent peers tend to gravitate toward one another. Delinquents associate with each other and this association stimulates greater delinquency. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the actions of gangs. Not only is violent behavior accepted, it is required. Members must be ‘‘jumped in’’ via violent victimization; the same procedure is followed for those who want to leave the gang.

The environment also operates to influence the learning of violence. Some studies of environmental influences have focused on the effects of poverty and disadvantage. Poverty itself does not cause violence. Rather, being poor affects one’s life experiences in several ways conducive to violence. Individuals living in poor neighborhoods have few resources and supports for healthy development and are more likely to experience multiple stressors. In some neighborhoods, there are few legitimate routes to financial success and social status, which may also engender feelings of relative deprivation in contrast to middle-class society. Those who have little also have little to lose. Thus, low social and economic status may contribute to heightened risk-taking behavior, an idea that finds some support in psychological studies showing that artificially lowering an individual’s self-esteem gives rise to higher levels of risky or rule-breaking behavior.

In urban settings, poverty often produces situational factors, such as overcrowding, that are linked to violence. Indeed, the highest rates of violence typically are found among the urban poor (Dahlberg). Drive-by shootings and random violence have come to characterize some of the most distressed, inner-city communities. As violence increases and neighborhoods become more dangerous, the use of force may be seen as normal and even necessary for self-protection. A subculture of violence can emerge wherein violence is legitimized as an acceptable behavior within certain groups. The idea that degree of violence is related to the prevailing social norms about its acceptability can also shed light on cross-cultural differences. Countries where violence is considered non-normative such as Japan have low homicide rates; countries where violence has become almost a way of life such as El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates over one hundred times higher (Buvinic, Morrison, and Shifter).

These different contextual factors can serve as a training ground for violence via their influence on children’s learning. However, beyond a focus on how individuals learn violent behavior through socialization, recent efforts have highlighted the importance of cognitive processes that help shape and control behavior—what might be called the software of the brain. Studies have shown that more aggressive and violent individuals have different ways of processing information and thinking about social situations. They tend to interpret ambiguous cues as hostile, think of fewer nonviolent options, and believe that aggression is more acceptable (Crick and Dodge). Once these cognitions crystallize during socialization, they are more resistant to change.

Situational Factors

Both innate factors and socialization experiences mold an individual’s propensity to violence. But this is not the whole story. It appears that situational catalysts can also lead to violence and increase the seriousness of such behavior. Almost any aversive situation can provoke violence. Frustrating situations are linked to heightened aggression, although frustration does not always produce aggression and is certainly not the only instigating mechanism. Other aversive experiences such as pain, foul odors, smoke, loud noises, crowding, and heat portend heightened aggressiveness, even when such behavior cannot reduce or eliminate the aversive stimulation (Berkowitz).

The influence of pain on violent behavior has been widely studied. Pain-instigated aggression is often cited as one of the clearest examples of aversively generated aggression. Further, the likelihood of overt aggression increases as the pain becomes greater and the ability to avoid it decreases. However, it is not necessarily the pain, per se, that causes aggression. Indeed, investigations of people suffering from intense pain have documented higher levels of anger and hostility and speculate that subsequent aggression may be due to the agitated negative affect that accompanies pain rather than the pain itself. Along these lines, any type of aversive experience that results in heightened negative affect should increase the likelihood of subsequent aggression.

Alcohol has also been shown to promote violence. In studies of alcohol and domestic violence, alcohol use typically is implicated in more than half of all incidents. Similarly, both homicide victims and perpetrators are likely to have elevated blood alcohol levels. Although a relation has been established, the precise mechanisms by which alcohol increases violence are unclear. It is likely that these effects are related to its impact on how an individual evaluates social situations and decides on an appropriate response. For example, some alcohol-violence studies suggest that ingestion of alcohol makes normal social interactions extremely difficult, heightening the likelihood of a range of inappropriate responses including violence.

Situational cues that suggest violence are also likely to increase violence by priming violencerelated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Street fights engender more violence because they cue violent responses in observers. The presence of guns can also make violence more likely to occur when they are associated with an aggressive meaning and positive outcomes. For instance, the presence of a hunting rifle will not promote hostile and violent behavior in those who disapprove of aggression toward others. It is not just the weapon but the meaning and anticipated consequences of its use that promote violence. Even the picture of a gun or weapon in a room can increase the chance of an aggressive act. This effect is of particular concern because guns make violence more deadly. For example, the rise in murders of juveniles in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s was entirely firearm-related. Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and youth in many places (Snyder and Sickmund).

Even nonviolent individuals can turn violent when they are part of a violent crowd. Group violence seems to make individuals feel less personally responsible for their behavior, acting in ways they would never do alone. Violence becomes an act of the group with no one person being held responsible. In some groups, violence emerges as a necessary strategy for defense against enemies—as seen in gang warfare, terrorist organizations, and political violence. At the other end of the spectrum, isolation also breeds violence. Different mechanisms to account for the influence of isolation have been proposed. These range from psychological changes akin to delusions of grandeur to disturbances in the balance of neurochemical pathways critical to the control of emotional and stressful responses.

Prevention and Control of Violence

Although history attests to the ubiquitousness of violence, it is also true that individuals have available and use a wide array of inhibitory or alternate behavioral strategies. Although aggression and violence may be ever present, they are not inevitable. The longevity of a social group, society, or nation hinges, in part, on the peaceful resolution of conflicts and other social problems. Escalating or unacceptably high rates of violence can serve as a call to action to mobilize the forces of prevention and control.

Just as there is no single cause of violence, there is no single solution. Rather, different types of violence are associated with different causal processes and warrant different responses. A reasoned approach to prevention and control hinges on sorting out these multiple influences as they impact the developing individual over time and across contexts. The control of violence requires a confluence of synchronized efforts that address innate, socialization, and situational contributions to violence, for all individuals as well as for those who display more extreme problems. New research on the biology of violence provides a credible starting point that looks at individual development as it both influences and is influenced by the environment. If this development proceeds on a course that minimizes violent behavior, it results in a nervous system that is in tune with the demands of the outside world, is able to integrate emotional and representational data, and is not hypersensitive to perceived threat. Environmental factors that compromise this development, such as exposure to lead, head trauma, and abuse provide a viable beginning for prevention. The fact that brain development occurs at a rapid pace during the first years of life suggests that these factors must be addressed at an early age. Not only should efforts focus on prevention of trauma, but healthy developmental supports are needed. Healthy Start and Nurse–Home Visitation programs are examples of programs that can address these issues.

To the extent that violent actions are learned, a range of prevention and control responses can interrupt this learning process. First in line are strategies to reduce the perceived or actual positive consequences of violence. These may involve changing peer group and parent norms, providing nonviolent and positive means to achieve desired goals such as status and money, and training parents and other socialization agents to reward cooperative and prosocial behaviors. Under some conditions, punishment can also reduce aggression. A child who is sent to his room after hitting his brother should be less likely to hit his brother the next day. A child who is severely spanked for hitting his brother may suppress his aggression in the days to come while also learning that violence is a good way to solve problems. Prison is unfortunately one of the best schools for violence known to society. Inmates are held in isolation, under crowded conditions, socializing only with other violent or antisocial peers, with treatment for accompanying mental health or addiction problems the exception rather than the rule. Prisons also come into play far too late in the game, when brain patterns and cognitions are well formed.

Another prevention prescription would focus on reducing the myriad of opportunities to model violent acts as a result of a continuous exposure to glorified violence in television, movies, and video games, as well as ‘‘sports’’ activities such as extreme fighting. Observing violence can increase individual attitudes and beliefs that such behavior is acceptable. In addition to reducing such modeling opportunities, research suggests that cognitive-behavioral interventions can also shift thinking patterns toward more reflective and less automatically aggressive thoughts.

The notion that human violence is innate or inevitable precludes effective prevention and control. In contrast, if we understand violence as an optional strategy that can be increased or decreased through a variety of mechanisms, opportunities for prevention and control abound. Individuals are biologically and socially capable of peaceful coexistence—a clear and powerful antidote to violence.


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