Research-Based Meditations on Mass Violence
British Medical Journal
Published August 30, 2011
The interchange sparked by this editorial is intriguing. I offer the
following reflections about the most recent riots based on the
considerable literature available on the social psychology of group
aggression and violence.
It is clear from psychological anthropology, evolutionary psychology,
and paleontology research that a considerable foundation of human behavior
in general, and violence in particular, is genotypically grounded: the
human animal has evolved mechanisms meant to adaptively respond to social
problems. The use of violence as a specific strategy for adaptive problem
solving is a cross-cultural and cross-species phenomenon, from simians to
arthropoda. Moreover, empirical behavioral genetic evidence exists that
supports genetic predispositions for human antisocial personality traits.
However, while a genetic predilection for violence might be evident
in the human species, it is imperative that this perspective be tempered
with the awareness that psychological variables and contexts are
critically important causes or mediators of not only individual antisocial
behaviors, but the group aggression witnessed in London.
Strong research suggests that individuals who perceive themselves to
have less economic resources are more likely to believe that they are the
victims of economic inequality, and therefore, view violence as a means of
obtaining the resources they desire. Perceived challenges to status,
reputation, and respect, just as with our simian relatives, provide a
fertile motivation for violent acts.
An interesting assessment developed by Mills and Kroner (2001), the
Measures of Criminal Attitudes and Associates, is a good starting point
for understanding mob-related violence. According to this theory, high
ratings on the following variables are predictive of violence and violent
recidivism: The identification with attitudes that support violence as a
means; perceived entitlement — the right to have and take away; antisocial
intent; and association with those involved in criminal activities.
Furthermore, social psychological research on the role of
deindividuation, (a reduction of self-awareness) and diffusion of
responsibility (a reduction of individual moral responsibility), in-group
/ out-group bias, social identity, and conformity to group norms and
perspectives might have a role in precipitating antisocial activities.
Even though, arguably, most melee-causing mobs are not a tightly-woven
group of similarly-minded ideologues with cohesive relationships (as in
many terrorist groups), the inspiration, if based on an experience of
shared injustices by an out-group, can certainly lead to the formation of
the arousal and attitudes of a new disaffected identity and corresponding
norms that legitimize violent mayhem.
These recent events should prompt clinicians, law enforcement
professionals, and those engaged in public policy to study the panoply of
available research on this topic and to judiciously utilize these insights
from science when implementing strategies to address this social ill.
Stanley M. Giannet, Ph.D.
Buss, D.M., & Shackelford, T.K. (1997). Human aggression in
evolutionary psychological perspective. Clinical Psychology Review, 17,
Mills, J.F., & Kroner, D.G. (2001). Measures of Criminal
Attitudes and Associates (MCAA). User Manual.
Monohan, J. (1981). The clinical prediction of violent behavior.
Rockville, MD: NIMH publication
Russell, G.W. & Arms, R.L. (1998). Toward a social psychological of
would-be rioters. Aggressive Behavior, 24, 219–226.
Wilson, M. & Daly, M. (1997). Life expectancy, economic
inequality, homicide, and reproductive timing in Chicago neighbourhoods.
British Medical Journal, 314, 1271–1274.