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Is Violence Hard-Wired?

man pounding fist on tableTake a look at most any natural phenomenon and eventually you’ll observe within it a current of violence; from the aggression and carnage played out on the wild savannas by fierce predators to the very nature of how the universe was formed, the natural world is marked by cycles of clashes and calamities.

Yet although violence seems an inherent and inextricable part of the world around us, we are compelled to abhor it in ourselves; global goals for world peace, love, and mediation comprise some of the most important issues of modern human society. As civilization progresses, we are coming to understand ourselves as more advanced beings, capable of cooperation and harmony where other species must resort to bloodshed. But is the scourge of violence an essential human trait that can never be eradicated, or is it a product of the social environment? And, importantly, what does this mean in the context of a world where children can kill?

Some of the most jarring news stories to sweep the United States in the past decade have covered neither politics nor financial crises, but rather solid demonstrations of the ability of youths to acquire firearms, construct elaborate plans, and carry out grisly killings. In April 1999, two students succeeded in ending the lives of 12 of their peers and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado, while a more recent school-related massacre, at Virginia Tech in 2007, resulted in the deaths of 32 people, including the perpetrator, a college student. The years in between have been peppered with accounts of violent acts carried out by minors, and have led to a heightened national awareness of danger from what would seem a highly unusual source. But while these stories may well be shocking, and certainly tragic, they may speak to a deeper social concern. The strong evidence for the capacity of children to kill suggests an admixture of science and simple sensibility; neither wholly intrinsic in human nature, nor extracted entirely from a magic formula of environmental factors, violence among children is a problem with several sources, and it requires a comprehensive examination.

The biological precursors of violent behavior are simple; where there are limited resources, people must compete with each other to survive, resulting in necessary aggression. This aggression is driven not only by the need to eat and take shelter, but by our own neurochemistry, which helped our prehistoric ancestors survive the trials of Earth’s rugged environment and continues to aid us today. The substances norephedrine and adrenaline help us rise to challenges and call us to action, while low levels of calm-inducing neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine keep us from being placated. In the context of modern civilization, the need for such tools to help us carry out basic living requirements may seem barbaric, but they are nevertheless a part of human history and of the constitution of our biological selves. These tools can sometimes lead to unnecessary violence, but it is important to note that an average, well-functioning person can easily stay on top of these natural triggers and prevent themselves from resorting to blows. This is not always the case, however, for those who suffer from psychological and neurological issues, especially where children are involved; chemical imbalances and dysfunctions of the brain can lead to an increased tendency toward violence, whether directed toward oneself or others. And in a society with a large percentage of children affected with psychological issues, it is important to provide nurturing, healthy environments for development.

Significant bodies of research reaching back to the mid-20th century shed light on the fact children’s acts of aggression are, at least in part, influenced by what they observe in others, be they family members or characters on television. Albert Bandura‘s groundbreaking studies in the 1960s revealed that a child’s tendency toward aggression is directly related to the levels of aggression they observe in those around them; if parents, friends, and even fictional figures are particularly violent, the likelihood that the child will display violent attitudes increases. In the 1980s, the National Institute of Mental Health found that children who frequently observed violent behavior exhibited a decreased sensitivity to the suffering of others, a greater fear of the environment in general, and a heightened frequency of aggressiveness. Children with aggressive parents or who are exposed to individuals with poor self-control may therefore be at an increased risk of committing a violent act later on in life, as may be those who absorb a large and steady amount of violent media. Another significant environmental factor that can lead to violent behavior is found at school; the problem of bullying is as much alive today as ever, and continues to have a profound impact on affected children. In fact, when the U.S. Department of Education conducted studies on a set of more than 30 school shootings, it found that a full two-thirds of violent children responsible for the acts felt bullied in classrooms and at playgrounds.

Part of any reliable action plan for coping with stressful environmental triggers includes the acceptance of anger, which, while often related to acts of violence, is an entirely different human trait. Anger is a natural part of the spectrum of human emotions, and understanding how to work with one’s own anger is paramount in preventing uncontrolled violent acts. Those who are exposed to common environmental stressors can learn to harness their anger to keep themselves protected emotionally, and can find creative and constructive outlets which benefit not only themselves but those around them as well. Basic human aggression, as opposed to passive-aggressiveness and hyperbolic mania, can allow for violence to occur, but certainly doesn’t imply or necessitate it.

It is an inescapable fact that humans are, on a basic and ancient level, hard-wired for violence; like any creature, it is part of what has allowed us to develop and advance through the ages. But in a civilization in which we are able to cooperate with each other toward rational goals, we find ourselves able to function without the need for violent behavior. However, in the face of environmental triggers such as traumatic and aggressive family lives, scarce resources, and over-exposure to gore in media, violence can escape our rational world and manifest in tragic incidents, whether the perpetrators are children, young adults, or fully grown people. Identifying these triggers and working with our children to foster healthy, emotionally sound childhoods and a rational understanding of anger and how to process it can significantly decrease the likelihood that youths will perpetrate violent acts. Just as the capacity for harm and aggression lurk within the essential human psyche, so too does the capacity for love, kindness, and charity wait for the opportunity to shine through. After all, while very few have known the violence of a child, nearly everyone has been awed, inspired, and truly loved by one.

© Copyright 2009 by Noah Rubinstein. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Michael

    January 14th, 2009 at 11:59 PM

    I am a very short tempered guy. I used to whack my son when he was around 2 very easily. Not violently but I could never withhold the whacks. When he turned 3 his agressive behavior was a copycat of mine. His pattern of anger, emotional display and just about everything negative was a carbon copy of me. I went into therapy and today I’ve learnt to withhold my anger. Its working and I believe it will be an effective example to my son. It’s true that some people just cant control the violence within.

  • Christina

    January 15th, 2009 at 3:08 AM

    It is very sad to see these children behave this way and what’ more maddening is the adults letting them do this. I do believe that children act as the way they see other adults and children act. WE need to teach them this is wrong.

  • Wendy

    January 15th, 2009 at 3:09 AM

    Apparently children who act in a violent way have many issues in their lives. Maybe they don’t know any better because no thoughtful adult has shown them.

  • Traci

    January 15th, 2009 at 5:44 AM

    This article really made me sit up and take notice because any time that these terrible acts of violence occur I wonder where in the world these people accumulated so much anger that could make them do this. I am a strong believer that children model what they see at home, and today you even have to worry about the things that they see on video games and online. I do not think there is any way to shield your children from everything forever but they are smll and need to be protected from this type of imagery, both live and fictional. Children need care and love in their lives, not violence and anger. Because again the hope is that they will model and give back what they are given.

  • Maggie

    January 16th, 2009 at 4:20 AM

    I am a firm believer that children only copy what they see. If this is the behavior that you are showing them then this is what they are going to do. I am not pointing fingers but I think that all of us have to take some responsibility for many of these senseless acts of violence that seem to keep happening at an alarming pace today and give some real thought as to what we are giving our children to imitate. Quite sobering reality check for us all.

  • heather

    January 18th, 2009 at 9:36 AM

    Well said, Maggie. Kids learn from what they see and if they are not told any different, they are going to think this is ok and see nothing wrong with it. We need to teach our children otherwise.

  • Dawnna

    January 18th, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    I try to watch what I do and what I say, (although not always easy) because I know that my little girl will eventually pick it up. I do not in any way want her to witness violence. I know when she gets older, this will not always be the case and she will eventuall see it, but as long as she is with me…. I do not plan on her having to see or deal with it.

  • Couples Counseling

    January 20th, 2009 at 2:07 AM

    Hence those who has read this blog post must have come to a conclusion that “Parents is the mirror of a child”. So whatever parents do, is going to reflect upon their kids.

  • Tamra

    January 21st, 2009 at 3:56 AM

    Well said Couples Counseling. I think it all begins with parenting… Although I have seen parents try their best to raise the best kids they can, then the kids get hung up on negative people at school, which can cause them to behave badly

  • Jenna

    January 23rd, 2009 at 2:47 AM

    I think kids get attention with aggression. Parents definitely have to set an example of good behavior at home by doing so themselves and they also need to know the environment the child is exposed to. Keeping tabs on the external social network like school and friends is important in maintaining a healthy emotional balance.

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