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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

15 January, 2016 - 09:21

Preventing Violence

The social psychological study of aggression represents a classic example of the conundrum faced by social psychologists: Although we have developed a good understanding of the causes of aggression—and that understanding gets clearer every day—what exactly to do about it is an even more difficult question. Human aggression has remained with us since the beginning of time, and it is difficult to imagine that it is going to disappear soon.

Stopping the cycle of violence that characterizes so many families, neighborhoods, cities, and countries will not be easy. On the other hand, if we are serious about it, then we have a good idea where to begin to try to make a difference, because the principles that we have discussed in this chapter form a foundation both for understanding the causes of violence and for potentially reducing it. One thing that is certain is that reducing the prevalence of violence must involve changes in cognitions and emotions, as well as behavior. Also, this work must begin with children of very young ages, before aggressive behaviors, thoughts, and feelings become so well developed that they are difficult to change (Zigler, Taussig, & Black, 1992).

With increasing life experiences, our schemas about the world become more well defined and stable, and these established knowledge structures become more difficult to change. Not surprisingly, attempts at treating or rehabilitating violent adults (including such things as “boot camps,” individual and group therapy, and “scared straight” programs) have not been that successful. One problem is that these approaches do not address the wide range of factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of violent behavior. The most successful interventions appear to be those that address both person and situation factors, and which do so at a relatively young age.

To prevent the cycle of violence from beginning, we must reduce exposure to violence, particularly among children. There is no question that viewing violence breeds more violence. The more violence we see or participate in, and the more violence we experience, the more we commit. The relationship is not perfect, and it does not hold for everyone, but it is clear. Just as smoking cigarettes causes cancer, so viewing aggression causes violence. And just as many countries have developed advertising campaigns, taxes, and laws to reduce the use of cigarettes, particularly among minors, so we must work to reduce the exposure, particularly of children, to violent material. Governments can and have been involved in this effort (Huesmann & Skoric, 2003), but the primary source will be parents, who must find out what their children are watching on TV, in movies, and on the Internet—as well as what video games they are playing—and monitor and restrict their use.

People must work to dispel the popular notion that engaging in aggressive actions is cathartic. When we attempt to reduce aggression by punching a pillow or pounding on our computer keyboard, we are bound to fail. The arousal and negative emotions that result from engaging in aggression do not reduce but rather increase the likelihood of engaging in more aggression. It is better to simply let the frustration dissipate over time, for instance, by distracting oneself with laughter or other activities than to attempt to fight aggression with more aggression.

We need to help people control their emotions. Most violence is emotional aggression—the result of negative affect and high arousal. We need to better teach children to think about how they are feeling, to consider the sources of their negative emotions, and to learn ways to respond to them that do not involve aggression. When we think more carefully about our situation, rather than simply responding in an emotional way, we can more carefully choose the most effective responses when we are frustrated or angry (Berkowitz, 1993).

We must also work at the societal and government level by creating and enforcing laws that punish those who are aggressive, by increasing controls on the presence and availability of handguns and violent material more generally, and by creating programs to help the many victims of sexual and physical violence. In schools, it is essential that administrators, teachers, and staff become aware of the potential for violence and make themselves available as resources for students. School systems must have explicit policies that prohibit and specify sanctions for any student who teases, threatens, excludes, or otherwise mistreats another individual. A step forward in this regard is the legislation designed to stop cyberbullying that has recently been introduced in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.

Reducing the large income disparities between the poorest and the richest members of society will also be important. As a result of upward comparison, poverty creates frustration that begets violence.

Children (and adults) must be better educated about the causes of violence, because understanding the causes can help us learn to be less aggressive. Furthermore, because abuse of alcohol and other drugs so often leads to violence, better education about the effects of such substances, as well as support for individuals who need help dealing with them, is an important investment, not only for these individuals but also for the people around them.

We must also work to improve the situation in which children find themselves. Children who grow up in abusive homes learn that aggression is the norm; it is not surprising that they then often respond to social problems through aggression. We must help these families learn to use reward rather than punishment and particularly to avoid violent punishment, which leads children to model the violent behavior. If we can reduce the extent of violence within families, then children who grow up in those families will likely be less violent themselves.

And we must help people find alternatives to violence by encouraging them to think about others more positively rather than as threats to their own status and self-worth. If we can increase other-concern, for instance, by helping children learn to better communicate with each other, and at the same time increase people’s positive feelings about themselves, we will create more positive social situations that reduce violence and aggression.

Key Takeaways

  • There are individual differences in aggression, for instance, in terms of how people respond to negative emotions.
  • Men are more physically aggressive, but there are few differences between men and women in nonphysical aggression.
  • Different cultures have different norms about aggression as well as different rates of aggressive behavior. The culture of honor is an example.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Consider yourself and people you know in terms of individual differences related to aggression, as well as gender and cultural influences on aggression. Do the variables we discussed in this section predict their likelihood of aggressing?
  2. Consider a case in which you or someone you know is frustrated, angry, or experiencing other emotions that may lead to aggressive behavior. What techniques might you use to prevent the aggression from occurring?
  3. Create a print, web, or video advertisement that conveys information that would help students learn to be less aggressive.


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