Research-Based Meditations on Mass Violence

British Medical Journal

Editorial Reprint

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.