Causes of Violence and Aggression
Let us examine some of the underlying causes or drivers towards aggressive or violent behaviour. This will of course not be a comprehensive examination or list, but is intended to touch upon a few high level factors. Violence is not just something that affects others and people of a different disposition to ourselves, but is something that lies within the human psyche and can be leveraged or brought out in certain circumstances. Some of us think of ourselves as deeply socialised and that we could never be capable of certain acts of violence. But is this really the case? To tackle violence means tackling the causes rather than simply writing certain segments of the population off as 'violent' and assuming the rest of us will be on best behaviour all of the time. So what causes violence or aggression?
- Pressure This could be in the form of external sources of stress, i.e. stress triggers, which over time may wear down at our core values or sensibilities. They may be external events that cause us to feel fearful or stressful, painful memories, based on associations we have formed in the past, whether correctly or incorrectly (if there is indeed such a thing as 'correct') - and if we feel we have lost control or these triggers have built up to a significant extent, we may lose control or 'explode'. They could be social or economic pressures, and it has been observed at various times in recent history that economic pressures result in increased social tensions, racism, prejudice, domestic violence, street crime, rioting, violent protests, clashes between different groups and/or the police, and indeed war. To some degree, this can be a mechanism for social change (e.g. economic reforms or changes in government) or artistic expression (e.g. punk or other youth movements). Other stress triggers could include a stressful or highly demanding and high pace work environment. There can be other psychological reasons, including disempowering beliefs (being challenged by the environment) or repression or denial (see the Jungian Shadow page for more information). Most people have a breaking point, where they will diverge from their normal pattern of behaviour or personality, and may be seen to express their shadow or become slightly more aggressive or defensive in their behaviour. In such an aggressive or stressed state, one may interpret other people's behaviour or expressions as more aggressive than they really are (i.e. loss of clarify or attaching a false meaning to something). They may become aggressive towards the source of the stress, or may experience an aggression shift, and target others who have nothing to do with the original source of stress and take it out on them instead (given a moderate or no stress trigger from them at all). They may be subject to moodiness or other unpleasant emotional behaviour, or depending on how solid the person's boundaries are, how extensive their level of socialisation, and the solidity of their beliefs and self-control, may actually become violent in a specific situation or more types of situation than normal. The tolerance threshold is lowered. There are a small number of individuals who do not lose their composure no matter what physical or emotional stressors they are subjected to.
- Socialisation The extent that a person is socialised from an early age is extremely important in how violent they become in later life. Although the extent and severity of violence is much less as a small child, most violent behaviour and fighting actually occurs up to the age of 3. Most parents can attest to this! Before the age of 3, most children have not developed the relevant connections to their emotional centre, the pre-frontal cortex, and have little control over their impulses. They lack emotional-management and self-control, especially regarding the impulse to fight. As children grow older, they usually learn to control their violent urges, but of course, if a child has missed out on this socialisation process and built up their neurological pathways and connections, i.e. violent or abusive domestic/other environments, little guidance or control in infant schools and/or poor parenting, then a child may retain a large element of this lack of self-control with regards to violent urges and impulses into teens and beyond. The irony is that most teenagers are much less violent than young children, although they are physically stronger and have learnt to fight better or how to express violent urges through books, gaming or media. There is the element of teenage insecurity (the uncomfortable middleground between being a child and an adult) and hormones to consider also.
- Brainwashing or Conditioning We can observe in certain situations that people with some level of pain can be conditioned into becoming soldiers who can commit acts of genocide or ethnic cleansing. Or indeed in the Balkans, where civilians would kill their neighours because of a perceived ideal, political proganda and manipulation of past historical tensions or national/ethnic identity insecurity. For some, acts of violence by another group against one's community or a perception of a threat to one's community or country is enough to motivate a person to enlist in a type of activity that involves indiscriminate killing. This is not to say that all armed forces are involved in indiscriminate killing, but certain elements of soldiers overseas do engage in indiscriminate or sadistic killing or torture. This occurs often as a consequence of de-humanisation (as discussed on the Psychology of Difference page. Japanese soldiers in WW2 were not inferior human beings but had simply been brought up and conditioned to regard those who surrendered as less than human, and their violent treatment of them usually just reflected this. Of course, some were more sadistic and violent than others. People are conditioned to varying degrees, but members of militias or vigilante groups or even certain gangs, are conditioned into being more violent than they otherwise would be if they had not signed up to these groups. Such acts of cruelty of violence are often geared around tranferring one's own pain onto a group of people and making them suffer, to exact one's 'revenge' for whatever injustices one perceives one has been subjected to (due to brainwashing; or the environment and circumstances of the conflict one is engaged in - e.g. lack of appreciation by some of the locals, which comes back to pressure above).
- Shifting Responsibility; Respect for Authority; Conformism; Consistency In our modern industralised or service oriented societies, we are conditioned to operate as part of a big system or collective. We rely on others for many essential services and for expertise. Often, we blindly accept what someone tells us because of their social standing, professional qualifications or position of power. On many levels we associate many roles or professions with higher ideals. For example, scientists or doctors are associated with a benevolent ideal that they are working to make our society a better place, to make us healthier, and that people tend to accept their directions and word unquestioningly, even if what they are telling us is misguided or has been shown over a period of time to be flawed or completely erroneous in certain cases. We learn to trust a policeman, doctor, civil servant, our superior, or a customer services representative (to a lesser extent these days!) We often assume the smartly dressed business person, embodying our society's middle class and consumerist values, is more trustworthy and less likely to be a criminal than a scruffy individual or one wearing baggy sports gear. However, in many ways, this sense of trust is a double edged sword. It also requires a shift in responsibility. If we trust others to fulfil their role, then we are giving them our trust and are assuming they are responsible. As discussed above, many people fail to act in emergency situations because they assume someone else 'must know' or is taking responsiblity. We rely on the 'fair' systems in our society and work with them to get ahead and function, and we rarely think on the spot in all areas or are aware of what we are physically actually doing. People like to assume others take the responsiblity for a situation, and that if one hands something over to a superior or other department, or reports it, that one can then forget about it as it is no longer one's responsiblity. People often have an aversion to taking responsibility for a situation. This is partly why customer service in many large companies is so appalling, as people like to pass a problem or a case from one to another, like a game of 'Pass the Parcel' or a hot potato; and rarely checking with the person they handed it to to find out if the customer was actually helped or not; or if they do, it is only superficial and they don't want much detail, and as long as it takes no more than a few seconds. People similarly don't like to take responsibility for themselves and their own actions, and like to blame their misfortunes on others (e.g. the culture of litigation in the USA, e.g. people not wanting to check whether a cup of coffee is piping hot before placing the cup in their lap whilst driving or something equally irresponsible, placing the responsibility on the fast food outlet). Some people expect any product they purchase to be 'idiot proof' and not harm them if they swallow it, stab themselves with it or abuse it in any unfathomable manner; as they don't like to pay too much attention to what they are actually doing. People like to think anything they see on television is actually true, including commercials, which are there to sell you a product and NOT to educate you (usually quite the opposite), and assume anything a supermarket sells you cannot be that bad for you, espeically if it is by a trusted Brand or household name. Trusting a brand is an act of deferral of responsibility. People prefer to go around on autopilot, being far too busy, liking convenience (someone else taking part responsibilty for 'speeding up tasks' etc.)
There can be physical stressors, or factors that affect our behaviour and render us more likely to be short tempered or aggressive, such as muscle tension, lack of sleep (e.g. looking after a newborn child, long shifts at work etc.), long term illness, hormonal problems, drug or alcohol abuse, too much caffeine and other endocrine disrupting drugs, certain medications, too much sugar or preservatives in food, a painful injury, lack of relaxation time, or even a car accident (including a shock to the pre-frontal cortex). Some victims of car crashes, who were previously non-violent and very caring individuals can undergo profound personality changes and even commit murder. It is rare but it has occurred. Such events act to 'undo' the socialising that controls violent impulses that we learn as a child, as discussed below.
Some people are able to manage their emotions in a better way than others and not form delusional or unhelpful psychological associations; to release tension in various ways, through sports, sex, music, artistic expression, through sharing and communication, through sharing love, intimate physical contact or bonding, through philsophical thought and debate, through being proactive in one's life to change it for the better and remove gratuitous sources of pain etc. Some people however bottle up their pain, rarely express it or share it with anyone, and nurture it like a little child; perhaps even going over and over it in their minds, to make the pain bigger; either to motivate them to change something or because the ego likes to feel significant or important (albeit through extremely flawed means). Those who are under pressure, from whatever source, and seek to take 'revenge', either on the perceived source of the trigger, or anyone who remotely gets in their way in any way, feel some temporary sense of relief or satisfaction whilst executing this 'punishment', although after the event, when things have calmed down, they may be highly embarrassed or even deny or repress the memory of the experience, saying that it is not them, so their core identity and sense of superiority or righteousness is not affected. Revenge, punishing others or being cruel or destructive is a very low-level source of self-empowerment, and reflects an inability to self-actualise on much higher levels.
It should be noted that venting 'steam' and aggressive or defensive behaviour (whether to the source of the perceived stress or aggressiong shifting) is not the same as being confident or assertive. Those who cannot express themselves and assert themselves with ease and confidence in daily life or in certain situations are those that tend to build up the most pressure or tension and are most likely to 'blow off steam' on someone in an inappropriate manner. Aggression is not really a sign of relaxed confidence and positive beliefs about the self. It is a very low-level form of expression, used as a last resort when other strategies have failed (e.g. being passive, doing or saying nothing and letting one get increasingly wound up - yes, this is a choice and a strategy, albeit a rather unhelpful one). Confidence may be possessed in pockets, i.e. compartmentalised, in certain situations, and maybe absent in others. Aggression is the poor cousin of confidence. Learning and nurturing assertiveness rather than aggression more healthy for being who one wants to be and minimising the amount of frustration that builds up; and is more conducive to a happy and relaxed existence.
We should consider that the meaning of violence is engrained into our respective cultures. For example, in certain cultures, children are taught violence as a form of social expression, in certain specific circumstances and traditions. Historically, our societies have been extremely violent throughout history, and it is only in recent times that death (through violence or disease) has not been an everyday experience on our streets and in everyday life. We need only look to Totalitarian states for unadulterated brutality and how it affects daily life. This is more 'typical' of humanity throughout history. In other societies, we are taught that it is wrong, unless of course one is referring to the police or soldiers where lethal force may be dished out without thinking about it, because of the perception of righteousness or 'need'. These are highly compartmentalised forms of expression that are not tolerated elsewhere in the society. Modern consumer culture has a rather contradictory view of violence, as it is regarded as sexy or cool in certain circumstances, in games, movies etc. but then our politically correct culture looks down upon actual expressions of violence or embracing some of the things we have been shown in the media. The same applies to sex. Soldiers are trained to kill, then when they come home they are not appreciated and cannot act in the same manner as they did whilst on duty (e.g. using force to protect the innocent). Post-enlightenment society has done much to try to rise about humanity's baser instincts towards fighting or violence, but it is probably hard-coded into people in a primal sense, that animalistic instinct, this comes to the surface in certain situations or under extreme stress, or when societal restrictions are removed (i.e socialisation is 'undone').
In a similar sense, when modern democratic and middle class values and social restrictions are removed from one's living environments, many people are seen to degenerate into more violent or primitive/primeval behaviour. This is something Darwin himself noticed in South American natives. He brought two back to England, brought them up as English gents (albeit being treated as novel acts) and when returned to their home villages, they did not socialise the other inhabitants but returned to their former state and the local priest was brutally murdered. This is not to say that this tendency to slip down the cultural curve towards violence was a good thing, but it was a natural state for those cultures with less inhibitions and that adoped a somewhat more 'animal' state. We cannot escape our animal origins, but we can exercise self-control when appropriate. Most people acknowlege that minimal force is acceptable in extreme situations, but most people do not feel good afterwards about having taken a life, even if it meant protecting their own or those of others. This may result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
When it comes to 'regular' forces in the US and European armies, then it is true that soldiers are conditioned to kill their targets without thought. Thinking about it too much would cost lives - their own. He who hesitates in battle will generally not live very long. Conversely, many soldiers or snipers actively enjoy hitting their 'targets'. They are trained to do so. It is the same sense of elation that a software engineer feels when he has completed a program/routine or fixed a bug and got a system working again. If one sniper for example hits a target with precision (e.g. a head shot), then other members of his unit may well be jealous. Soldiers are generally not trained to 'kill' from day one, they are groomed, first to endure extreme physical hardships, to succeed, and to look out for members of their own team. They are with time trained to fire at targets that resemble the shape of people over many months, which fall down when fired at, so that when a soldier comes to shoot at a target, he is not shocked when they just collapse like a sack of potatoes. Over time, they come to train to kill more and more realistically, for example stabbing sacks filled with animal guts with their bayonets, so that entrails leak out when they stab them. Problems arise when they go back home and their aggressive way of dealing with threats are not welcomed in civilian life, nor is the fact that they may have actually killed people in a gruesome manner in combat, as people see that if they are capable of killing in one situation, they are in another. However, this is not generally the way soldiers look at it, they were putting their lives on the line to do a job no one else wants to do. They follow orders. It is the politicians that the 'civilised' nation votes in that are responsible for making the decisions about who to go to war with, so in a sense the voting public is as responsible as the person who actually pulls the trigger. A soldier is trained to fight and achieve a target, and that is what they do in the field, like clockwork, having been trained to do so hundreds of times in practice drills. Similarly, crack teams like the Special Forces, e.g. SAS, go in with surgical precision, often compared to the undisciplined soldiers/terrorists they come up against, who often don't stand much of a chance. They kill efficiently and aim to get the job done and with minimum civilian casualties. They do not often lose sleep at night over their killings, but more often it is civilians who were in the vicinity or negotiators who feel bad about death tolls of terrorists etc. Of course, some soldiers are indeed traumatised by their experiences, and a constant state of stress and fearing for one's life for months on end can burn people out and cause severe psychological damage and health problems, let alone any toxic exposure whilst in the field and the garbage that is often served up as 'food'. It depends on the individual of course. Some soldiers in the heat of battle do get 'bloodlust', i.e. the desire to kill, and under extreme stress or trauma associated with dead comrades, sometimes atrocities and war crimes do occur, soldiers wanting to literally kill anything that moves, or commiting gross acts of torture and sexual abuse on prisoners. Afterwards, they may well realise the error of their ways and the extent of what they have really done, i.e. the unprofessionalism and tainting of their unit's name. An intense hatred of the opposition does contribute to bloodlust, egged on by racism or bigotry. In the First World War, troops were trained to hate the enemy, but this often resulted in tally ho, cavalier and irresponsible attitudes to fighting (solo heroic actions) and often resulted in early burn out or premature death. One might question this however, as on Christmas Day in 1914, the Germans and British had a football match on no man's land, and had a great time together, only to resume the slaughter the next day. Perhaps it was compartmentalised in some manner. During the Second World War, the training focussed on tactical precision, in a non-emotional manner, but there was never really any training to 'kill' any targets that resembled people, so when it came to the actual combat, about 70% of the troops, when firing at the enemy, aimed to actually miss as they could not face killing other human beings!
The pinnacle of experiments in people shirking responsility and trusting an authority figure more than they should be must surely be the famous Milgram experiment.
In the Milgram experiment of 1961, volunteers were invited to partake in an experiment on memory and memory training. Upon arrival they were informed that it would involve the application of electric shocks to a person in the next room if they got an answer wrong, to see if it helped them remember. The voltage would be increased for every wrong answer. The other person was an actor, and the responses to the shocks were pre-recorded. The 'trainer' applying the shocks from a console was not in reality giving anyone any shocks, but they did not know this. There was an instructor/scientist present in the room with the trainer the whole time. As the experiment continued, many looked to the scientist for guidance and for reassurance, as the voltages became higher and more shouts and screams were heard next door, but because they believed it was of scientific value, a higher ideal (much like participants in Nazi Germany atrocities believed their cause was a higher ideal or calling), and that they were told that they must continue, that they were obligated to do so, most carried on, to the maximum voltage of 450V which is deadly. 65% (26 of 40) of participants, picked from a variety of backgrounds and occupations, went on to 'kill' the learner or actor.
These were people who were not in pain, angry or violent. Nor with what would be considered to be stressed or unsocialised backgrounds. However, they went on with a small amount of coercion to what they thought was killing someone, building up to it over a short period of time. Clearly if they had been asked to apply 'deadly' force from the start, they would most likely have refused, but because it was build up over time, each previous action reassured them, as it was only 'a little higher' than the last shock, and that if they had been ok about the previous level, then this wasn't much different. This is probably a reflection of the desire of the brain for continuity, and the pressure from oneself to appear consistent, even if it means doing something one really doesn't want to be doing, in the hope it will go away or stop soon and one can get back to normal. In many cases, people tend to compartmentalise their experience, and don't pay much attention to what else is going on (context of one's work or the consequences an what it means) and just want to focus on their job; i.e. tunnel vision, and a lack of interest in the consequences of their actions. In this case it resulted in ignoring or not thinking about the screams or lack of screams or sound as the voltages increased. Or perhaps a plain lack of thinking about what was going on, smoothed over by the step-by-step nature of the experiment. So the net result of the experiment is that most of us have the potential to kill an innocent person if it fits in with a higher goal or ideal, or involves authority figures that tell us to perform our duty and whose presence seemingly shares or delivers us of any responsibility. It is the way one feels one is not performing the action personally on another, but is merely the instrument of another's will, and any moral or ethical consequences of one's actions are the fault of one's superior or the culture as a whole, not you the individual who actually performs them. Many people recognise this tendency to excuse inhuman or unfair treatment of an individual as 'one is just doing one's job', but clearly it can be taken to the extreme with little push at all, in the right situation. Some people will naturally question authority more and refuse to do certain jobs that are demanded of them if they consider them to conflict with their moral values. Others will continue to perform inhuman acts with some reassurance along the way from someone they look up to or trust; or assume must know what they are doing. The same patterns seem to occur also when a group of individuals get together - often resulting in a worse standard of behaviour than would otherwise be engaged in, through peer pressure and appealing to the group's more powerful social pressures and fears, and baser instincts, where the pressure to conform to the group mentality is too great for most -those who do not are often picked on by other members of the group. Many people just want to be accepted by the group and succumb to conformist pressures. The tendency towards poor behaviour in groups is noted by anthropologists as a phenomenon known as Tragedy of the Commons, where a group of people sharing resources will tend to abuse that resource as they think someone else will do if they don't, whereas they wouldn't do it if it was their own or they felt it was their own. You may have noticed something similar when people rent a hire-car and treat it worse than their own car as they don't feel th responsibility towards it.
The Milgram experiment was recently repeated in 2008/9 for a television programme featuring the ex-Conservative Party UK MP Michael Portillo. In this experiment, 75% of participants (9 out of 12) went on to use the 'deadly voltage', although the number of test subjects was only 12 as opposed to 40 in the original Milgram experiment. Whether this is because the sample was smaller or whether it reflects a higher degree of predisposition to be coerced by authority figures or a general tendency towards a lack of concern for others or to use one's brain is a matter of debate.
What we can learn from this is that one is an individual and should not go along with events or the status quo out of a desire to conform or because one believes that someone is really responsible or will be looking out for us. It is the survival instinct and the independent mindset where one takes responsibility for one's actions, and asks the right questions; and where one is true to one's core values in all situations.
© 2006-2014 Fabian Dee