Friday, 21 November 2014

this is a synthesis of ideas

the social psychology of violence
            If we take a critical look at violence, we can expose some of the underlying issues behind it. This can help in our efforts to move beyond the ‘catalysts’ of violent actions and states of mind. Violence is a complex phenomenon, but it can be understood on several levels. What needs to be considered are both the environment behind the violent act (who, what, when, where, and why) and the aggressor’s state of mind (taking into account environmental influence).
Our habit of categorizing and separating people into groups is useful. It helps us organize our thoughts and make sense of the world. But if these mental short-cuts have negative ‘connotations’ against particular ‘groups’ of people, it can lead to scape-goating (blaming certain people for society’s problems), stereotyping (thinking that everyone in that group is the same), and discrimination (acting on those thoughts). These ‘mental shortcuts’ also contribute towards sexism, ego-centrism, ageism, ethno-centrism, and other forms of perceived separation.
When we rely on stereotypes and negative representations of people, we are more likely to feel superior to a person (or group of people) (Aronson et al, 2002). Feelings of superiority will not lead to violence, per se. It may, however, make a person more ‘susceptible’ to violence within certain situations (discussed later on) and may increase the amount of situations that a person will resort to violence. This is why it’s important to know how the ‘aggressor’ views the ‘recipient’ of their violence.
In war, genocide, and other acts against specific groups, the aggressor’s empathy is lowered because they view their ‘target’ as sub-human (or as an object). This includes ignoring their thoughts and feelings and seeing them as barriers to their goals (Baron-Cohen, 2011). This mental mechanism lowers the threshold to act violently on those ‘types’ of people. It can also be a reason behind high crimes rates in big cities; big cities can be impersonal, which can disconnect people and corrode empathy for one another.
Think about how we view ‘criminals’. We blame them for society’s problems (scape-goating). We don’t take the individual’s story into account and instead lump them into a category (stereotype). We refer to them as ‘evil’, ‘monsters’ or ‘psychopaths’ and place them a category below the one that we fit ourselves into (de-humanizing). We then have the criminal justice system punish them. 
The alternate view is that crime is a symptom of a larger social problem. It is very likely that this ‘criminal’s’ actions have a logical trace from childhood to their ‘criminal act’. Alcohol, poverty, population density, and past victimization are all correlated with crime (Reiss and Roth). Not taking the reasons why someone commits a crime is the first step to missing the problem in the first place. I’m not saying that we should empty out the prisons and treat people who commit crimes as victims, but violence will persist if it is misunderstood and dealt with through more violence.
It’s important to recognize how popular media contributes toward the fear of crime as well. For the sake of entertainment and sensationalism, the media distorts people’s understanding of crime. People over-estimate crime and have an over-exaggerated fear of it. We often rely on the emotional reactions to what we see in the media. But by falsely reacting, we fail to question the institutions that were put in place to deal with the ‘crime problem’.
The crime and war examples were given to show how our minds can create illusions of difference between people. Whether violence manifests in a terrorist attack, gang war, or genocide, it seems that common mechanisms are at work. Let’s now consider some other influences on violent behavior
In many cases, the ultimate goal behind an act of violence is not necessarily the victim’s death or injury, but rather money, sexual gratification, respect, attention, or the humiliation and domination of the victim (Widom, 1989). Violence is the means to an end in many cases.
The acceptability of violence in one’s culture is a precursor for violence as well. This is why media violence can be dangerous. Media violence: a) models violent behavior (how we might go about it), b) primes aggressive thinking (makes it more likely to be an option), and c) desensitizes us (reduce our sense of shock towards violence and decreases sympathy for the victims) (Aronson et al, 2003.). Media violence, therefore, can not only teach violence, but it can help justify and normalize it.
If a person grows up in a violent household (or society), violent behaviors are also being learned. If an individual learns from a role model that violence is an acceptable way of dealing with conflict or venting frustrations, they are more likely to use violence in their lives. Violence can also be a way of re-gaining a lost sense of power or control in an individual. This ‘loss’ of power or control can be economic, emotional, or the result of being the recipient of violence in the past. The person may act out violently in order to regain their sense of control (Widom, 1989). This does not mean that all children who have been abused or neglected will be violent, but they are at higher risk for violent behavior later in life, especially if they don’t learn more acceptable ways to deal with conflict.
It’s important to consider the influence of obedience to authority and group-think as well. People will do things that they would not normally do in situations if they are coerced, feel threatened, have collective morality, or follow a charismatic leader (Beau, 2004). For a great example on how authority can influence aggression, see Stanley Milgrim’s ‘shocking’ experiments in the ‘70’s.
            Guns bring an especially unique and dangerous formula to the equation of violence. They provide a more impersonal, emotionally remote act and allow the aggressor to bypass their inhibitions against close contact with their victims. This allows serious crimes to be committed by individuals who may otherwise be too timid or squeamish to come into contact with their victims (Kleck, 221).
            The last point I would like to share is the idea of ‘rituals of violence’. Rituals of violence are socially built ideas of when (in what situations) violence can be expected or acceptable (Barak, 2005). Rituals of violence can be as diverse as a boxing match, revenge, war, and criminal justice violence (police violence, capital punishment, imprisonment). Basically, rituals of violence provide ‘scripts’ to make sense of violence in situations. They transcend the idea that ‘violence is wrong’ and place violence into some situations where it can be used. The hope is that the amount of situations that allow or expect violence are lessening instead of increasing in our society.
            It’s important to know how our experiences shape how we make sense of violence. If we gain insights into the social, cultural, cognitive, and situational influences of violence, we can be more mindful of how to move beyond violent actions and states of mind.  As we have seen, violence can be caused by a combinations of: a) mental shortcuts that lead to de-humanization and loss of empathy in the ‘recipient’, b) past victimization (and loss of power or control), c) social influence and acceptability  d) learned behavior and e) rituals of violence (situations that accept or expect violence, such as war). These factors are further amplified by situations that involve firearms, group dynamics, and obedience. 
            It is hoped that understanding the psychology and social influence behind violence can help us move beyond it. I think it’s time to look past the ‘aggressor’ and gain a broader understanding of how our society as a whole is perpetuating the acceptance and motivations behind violence.

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