The Psychology of Violence: Addressing a Critical Public Health Problem


The Psychology of Violence: Addressing a Critical Public Health Problem
Healthy Living – August 5, 2014
David Prescott, PhD

Violence, Aggression, and Anger: Violence is, among other things, an important public health problem. As a leading cause of mortality for youth in America, combatting violence deserves attention for many reasons. Among them, violence is a leading cause of death and injury, particularly among young people. For certain age groups, violence presents a larger health risk than more traditional health problems like cancer or cardiac illness.
From a psychological standpoint, violence differs from anger and aggression.
• Anger is a normal human emotion that is typically experienced when we are threatened or provoked.
• Aggression involves behaviors associated with anger, typically involving verbal or physical threats and action against another person. Certain situations increase the risk of aggression, such as drinking, insults and other provocations and environmental factors like heat and overcrowding.
• Violence is an extreme form of aggression, such as assault, rape, or murder.
What Causes People to Be Violent? There are both short term and long term factors which often contribute to violent behavior. First, it is important to note that violence appears to be a learned behavior. There is good evidence to support the idea that alternatives to violent behavior can be learned.
In the short run, people often use violence to express anger, to manipulate others or achieve some type of goal, or to retaliate against others.
From a broader perspective, it appears that what parents teach their children about anger, aggression, and violence has a significant impact on whether or not a person commits a violent act wither as teens or adults. Children learn from observation of parents (i.e., how parents manage conflict), from whether or not their parents express disapproval of violence, and from the degree to which physical punishment is used with a child. Parents who provide good coaching to children about how to handle anger and frustration help reduce the child’s risk for later being violent.
Dealing with Violence: For people who are currently in a violent situation, safety is the primary goal. If you think you might be in a situation where aggression has crossed the line to violence, then you probably are. The primary strategy involves getting out of the violent situation. There are a number of legal steps available as well as social service agencies specifically focused on helping people develop a plan to get away from violence.
Preventing Violence: Reducing violence involves both personal and social level changes. Things that many of us can do to reduce the risk of violence include:
• Learning to Cope With Anger: While anger is a natural emotion, aggression and violence are not the only ways to cope with anger. Many people have never learned strong skills for identifying their own emotions and expressing them in productive ways. Counseling or anger management classes can help. For men who have been violent towards a partner, Batterer’s Intervention programs may be available.
• Seek Professional Counseling: Individual counseling that combines learning new skills for dealing with aggressive urges, and for improving self-understanding about the roots of problems like dealing with anger, can be received from a psychologist or other mental health professional.
• Provide Positive Role Modeling for Youth: Children and youth learn a great deal about how to handle difficult emotions from observation. Adults can reduce the risk of their children becoming violent by learning more productive ways to resolve conflict and cope with anger.
• Improve Your Parenting Skills: Parents who show interest in their children, who clearly discourage violence as a way to solve problems, and who role model appropriate ways to cope with anger, teach their children important lessons about how to behave non-violently. While facing your imperfections as a parent is never easy, the benefits of improved parenting are significant.
For More Information:
American Psychological Association (Public Interest Directorate):
Maine Domestic Violence Hot Line: 1-877-890-7788
Spruce Run: