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Studying the Psychology of Violence: What Is it & Why Is it Important?

Why is it important to know about violence? Humans have the capacity for deep love and incredible altruism. However, people have also engaged in violence since the beginning of time. Even in our most civilized societies, domestic violence, child maltreatment, school shootings, and war are ever-present realities.

When faced with these tragic acts of violence, many people wonder, “what causes people to act this way?” To address these issues effectively, we must first understand the psychology of violence.

To learn about the psychological reasons for violent behavior, and how psychology and violence are interrelated, keep reading.

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What is Violence?

Violence is defined as the use of force to hurt, damage, abuse, or kill. This type of instrumental aggression can be committed against an object, another person, or even oneself. Violence includes an array of aggressive acts, including:

  • Assault
  • Rape
  • Murder
  • Suicide
  • Terrorism
  • War

Sometimes violence is justly warranted, like in cases of self-defense. Other times, violence seems to come out of nowhere, leaving bystanders questioning the psychology of the perpetrator. 

So why is violence still so common in society, despite our many advancements?   

Why is Violence So Prevalent?

In a utopian world, physical violence, psychological violence, and other types  of instrumental aggression wouldn’t exist. However, violence has persisted throughout time for evolutionary reasons. It has been a necessary survival tool, helping people:

  • Protect themselves against threats
  • Guard their territory 
  • Secure food for their families

In turn, everyone’s brain possesses the neural circuitry for violence. These circuits are located deep within the unconscious part of the brain, where thirst, hunger, and sexual urges are regulated. Thus, violence is rarely caused by reasoned thinking. Instead, it’s usually the product of primal, unconscious rage. 

These days, many people move through the world without resorting to interpersonal violence. That’s because societies have outsourced the threat of violence to authoritative organizations, like security guards, police officers, and military forces. However, plenty of people still behave violently, even in the face of serious consequences. Let’s take a closer look at why this is. 

The Psychology of Violence

Even though everyone can commit violent acts or lash out in physical aggression and emotional abuse, the rate at which people do varies greatly. Some human beings become serial killers, while others never hurt a fly.

So what causes these differences in violent and aggressive behavior? It all comes down to a person’s unique psychology, biology, and environmental circumstances. 

While many people assume that mental illness is the leading cause of violent behavior, that’s not the case. The brain circuitry that regulates violence is impacted by a variety of factors, including: 

  • Substance use – Drinking alcohol or consuming certain drugs can cause a person to behave violently, whether or not they have a mental illness. That’s because many substances impair a person’s judgment and emotional regulation. In turn, an intoxicated person may get violent when they feel angry, hostile, or paranoid. 
  • Age and gender – Age and gender play a notable role in the prevalence of violence. Men are much more likely to act violently than women. In fact, 90% of homicides are committed by men. Likewise, younger people are more likely to act violently than their older counterparts.
  • Family history – Children who come from a family background of violence are also more susceptible to using it themselves. Kids often model their behavior after their parents. The trauma of witnessing domestic violence or experiencing child abuse can also influence their emotional development. Fortunately, therapeutic interventions, as taught in marriage and family therapy graduate programs, can reduce the impact of exposure to family violence in childhood. 
  • Biological predisposition – There are some factors that are totally out of a person’s control that may predispose them to violent behavior. For example, if a baby is born with fetal alcohol syndrome, they may be more likely to commit a violent crime later on. Any prenatal or developmental damage to a person’s amygdala or prefrontal cortex can increase the likelihood of violent behavior or impulsive aggression.
  • Situational stressors – Life circumstances can lead people to resort to violence too. For example, living in poverty or being homeless may increase the perceived need for violence. Similarly, the stress of unemployment, divorce, or being assaulted can increase someone’s use of violence, due to their heightened emotional distress. 
  • Specific mental illnessesThe research is mixed on whether mental illness plays a consequential role in violent behavior. Gender, socioeconomic status, and substance use are all much stronger predictors. However, some mental health symptoms may increase the likelihood of a person acting violently. For instance, human beings who experience paranoid delusions, psychotic thoughts, or command hallucinations may be more inclined to commit a violent act. 

Explore the Psychology of Violence at Alliant International University

As you can see, people turn to violence or physical aggression for a variety of reasons. Psychological, biological, and social forces all play a complex role. By understanding these factors, we can develop more effective strategies to mitigate the use of violence in our society. 

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, consider earning your Master’s in Forensic Behavioral Science, or a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law at Alliant International University. These degree programs will prepare you for a rewarding career in the field better understanding the psychology of violence and how to improve public and private systems to help make the world a safer place. 

Learn more about Alliant International University today


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