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J. Enrique G. Saplala is a psychologist under supervised practice in Canada, and was the president of the Psychological Association of the Philippines (www.pap.org.ph) from 2008-2010. In 1995, he co-founded Skwelahang Sikolohiya, a non-stock, non-profit alternative literacy program for prisoners at the New Bilibid Prisons.
"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction." - E.F. Schumacher
A student is bullied. The student fights back. The bully's father points a gun at the same bullied teen. Elswehere: a housemaid is abused by her employers. A San Beda student is killed during hazing. There's a killing spree in Colorado.
Time and time again, incidents such as these make us ask: what makes a person violent?
Understanding the factors of violence
Like most behaviours, violence is believed to be influenced by a host of multiple factors: a person's genetic make-up, experiences in upbringing, influence of peers, years of education, exposure to and use of drugs and similar substances, mental health, and so on. These factors may overlap, interplay and influence the person's way of thinking and his/her feelings, and ultimately result into violent behaviour.
Also crucial to understanding violence is to see it as behaviour that develops over time.
Violent behaviour repeats depending on whether the behaviour is rewarded or punished. For example, a child's violent behavior can be reinforced by his/her parents' reaction. If the parent's reaction is harsh or worse, abusive, it may suppress the child's behaviour, but it can also be traumatic and contribute to his/her low self-esteem.
Some adults have difficulty controlling their emotions, and their low self-esteem mixed with abusive experiences lead them to consciously or unconsciously resort to these [abusive] acts: they harm themselves or they harm others. It is their attempt at managing their own anxieties over their own abnormal behaviour.
Mental Illness and Violence
But not all adults who experience abuse necessarily resort to violent behaviour. Neurologist Jonathan Pincus and psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis believe that an interaction between abusive experiences in childhood, disturbances in the brain and the nervous system, and mental illness, is what contributes to violent behaviour.
Although not all patients who have mental illnesses resort to violent behaviour, the imbalance of physiological processes in the human brain (for a patient with paranoid schizophrenia, for example) and other factors such as substance abuse, can trigger thoughts and feelings that bring about violent behaviour. If news is to be believed that the Colorado assassin is being treated for mental illness, his violent behaviour may have been triggered by an interaction of several risk factors that resulted into violence.
Socialization and violence
On the other hand, social psychologist Joseph Puyat believes that an individual manifests violent behaviour differently when he or she is in a group such as a fraternity. Puyat suggests that fraternity members have shared unique experiences and interactions, such as their exposure to violence, that then become part of their belief system. The violence is deemed important to having a meaningful participation as a member of a social group. In turn, those who wish to become part of the group must subscribe to the same belief system.
Hope for people who have violent behaviour
Beyond mental illness and socialization, there are other factors that may contribute to violent behaviour: substance abuse, experiences of difficulties in childhood, experience with some violent incident, relationship issues, et cetera. Abetter understanding of these factors helps in predicting the occurrence of violent behavior. However, we must remember that these factors are considered static - one cannot reverse the experience of trauma or violence.
How does one then help a person who has violent tendencies? Personal insight, recognition of the symptoms of mental illness, management of conditions that makes a person vulnerable to violence and the presence of personal support, are crucial in managing the recurrence of violent behavior. These factors are considered dynamic because they can still be changed with the assistance of mental health professionals. .
In sum, violent behavior can be influenced by both static and dynamic factors. By considering these factors, a violent person can be helped to control his/her emotions, deal with his/her issue more proactively, and trained to manage his or her behaviour.