What does science say about violence in America?

With Saturday’s shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, many are thinking about violence in America. What do recent scientific studies show about violence?

With Saturday’s mass shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, many in the U.S. are thinking again about violence. What causes violent behavior? Knowing that there are scientists out there who specialize in trying to understand violence, I roamed the Internet in an attempt to make heads or tails of what they had to say.

The most interesting article I came across was in Slate. It bore the headline Mental illness not an explanation for violence.

The article, written by Vaughan Bell, cited Seena Fazel, an Oxford University psychiatrist who has done some of the most extensive studies of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to date:

A 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. Two similar analyses on bipolar patients showed, along similar lines, that the risk of violent crime is fractionally increased by the illness, while it goes up substantially among those who are dependent on intoxicating substances. In other words, it’s likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.

Dr. Fazel’s findings help us reconsider the general assumption that there are big differences between violent offenders and the rest of us. They also seem to indicate how impossible it is to guess at who’s about to go on a shooting rampage; we’re all susceptible, it seems, to rage and violence – even people who haven’t been diagnosed with mental illness, or exhibited the signs.

Running with this notion – the idea that there’s not a huge divide between violent people and everybody else – I dug around a little further, and found more than a few scientific studies suggesting that ordinary American lives are pretty violent. Violence can hide in the the nooks and crannies of our habits, and the habits of our kids.

Take dating violence, for example. Emily Rothman, associate professor at Boston University School of Public Health recently, published a study on dating violence among teenagers in December of 2010 in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. She surveyed around 1,500 students from the Boston area. Rothman found that:

… Nearly 19% of students reported physically abusing a romantic partner in the past month, including pushing, shoving, hitting, punching, kicking or choking. Nearly 43% reported verbally abusing their partner, cursing at them or calling them fat, ugly, stupid or some other insult.

That’s a lot of young people engaged in violence in their everyday lives. Another 2010 study from Craig Anderson of Iowa State University analyzed 130 research reports on more than 130,000 (human) subjects worldwide. Dr. Anderson reported his finding that, “exposure to violent video games makes more aggressive, less caring kids — regardless of their age, sex or culture.” He said the influence of video games on violent behavior is not huge.

…Not on the order of joining a gang vs. not joining a gang. But these effects are also not trivial in size. It is one risk factor for future aggression and other sort of negative outcomes. And it’s a risk factor that’s easy for an individual parent to deal with — at least, easier than changing most other known risk factors for aggression and violence, such as poverty or one’s genetic structure.”

It appears – to me, at least – that science is telling us the political violence that occurred over the weekend is not an aberration. Instead, it’s a reflection of universal human fragility, and the entrenched violence of our lives.

That said, I believe science can also give us hope. As BU professor Emily Rothman explained to Boston.com:

I would say that my reading of [evolutionary biology] literature has convinced me that violence is probably innate. It has served some purpose throughout history, but that does not mean that it’s our destiny.

Can any of this help us understand the tragic shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others on Saturday? Probably not. But perhaps for some the effort to try to understand will bring some comfort.

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Beth Lebwohl