Too often, the subject of violence is addressed in our society from a platform of sensationalism, disgust, and trepidation. The reporting of violent events incites two reactions from viewers: horrified fascination or a repelled reflex to turn away. Neither reaction inclines us to seek a better understanding of why violence occurs, nor to ask the question: What makes a human being become violent?
The media’s weighted focus on the effects of violence as opposed to the causes isn’t entirely to blame for our resistance to exploring the roots of violence. Part of our hesitance stems from the fact that violence is a deeply disturbing problem. Violent behavior can be triggered by frustration, anger, or a perceived humiliation. Its purpose can be to retaliate, or intimidate, or exert control. It is only when we have a better understanding of violence that we can begin to make a difference.
Even though there is not one answer to what causes violence, there is something I found in my research that has offered an invaluable insight into what goes on in the mind of someone who is violent. After years of researching, interviewing, and assessing violent individuals, along with my father Dr. Robert Firestone, I began to recognize certain “voices” (negative thought processes) that flood the minds of these individuals influencing them to engage in acts of violence.
These “voices” aren’t experienced as hallucinations but rather are a systematic pattern of negative thoughts against to the self, and hostile and suspicious toward others. We call these destructive thoughts “voices” because many of the people we interviewed reported experiencing them that way.
As I developed a scale, The Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts (FAVT), to measure the “voices” that incite violence, I was able to identify the thinking that sets the stage for violent and aggressive behavior. This information is not only helpful for predicting violent intent, but also for providing an overall understanding that helps explain all types of violence from the extreme examples that make the headlines to the angry and violent reactions that we sense in ourselves and others.
Voices that contribute to violence include those that support social mistrust. These paranoid, suspicious thoughts encourage people to assume a self-protective and defended posture from a perceived danger. Because the paranoia and misperception makes the threat seem real, people feel justified in acting out violence to protect themselves. The paranoia is supported by negative voices about other people being different, strange and bad. It is easier to hurt someone who is perceived as “not like you.” These voices contribute to a person’s suspicion and mistrust of the world at large. An example of these types of voices is: They are out to get you. Don’t trust them.
Other voices that lead to violence are the ones that support people feeling victimized and persecuted. They advise a person that he/she is the victim of mistreatment by others. These voices promote and support thoughts of being discounted, blamed, or humiliated by other people. An example of these voices is: They are going to make a fool of you. They don’t take you seriously.
Violent people have also reported having self-depreciating voices that make them feel that they are unlovable, and that no one will love or care about them. These voices promote isolation and encourage a person to take care of him/herself. They attack other people and see them as rejecting. All of these voices encourage a person not wanting anything from anyone else. An example of these voices is: You will have to take care of yourself because no one else will. Don’t expect anything from anyone, you will only be disappointed.
Self-aggrandizing voices can be a precursor of violence as well because they promote a view that a person is superior to others and deserves to be treated as such. They support an inflated self-image that functions to compensate for deep-seated self-hatred. When the aggrandized sense of self is threatened, for example by slights or perceived disrespect, a person often reacts violently in an effort to regain the aggrandized self-image. Research that links high self-esteem in adolescents to violence actually measured inflated self-esteem or vanity. An example of these voices is: You are so much better than them. How dare they talk to you like that!!
Overtly aggressive voices also contribute significantly to violence. These voices directly encourage taking violent action. They convince a person that to act out aggressively and violently would be appropriate, or that it would be a welcome release, or even be pleasurable. There is a lack of remorse expressed by the person who is influenced by these types of voices. An example of these voices is: Violence is the way to go. Just smash them; you’ll feel better.
Understanding what is going on in the mind of someone who is violent allows us to better assess the risk for violence and to intervene, protecting both the potential perpetrator and victim. Many risk factors for violence can’t be changed, but a person’s thinking is a risk factor that can be. By monitoring the decrease in a person’s violent thoughts during treatment, we are able to assess their improvement. Moreover, in offering violent people an understanding of the thoughts that underlie their tortured thinking, we are providing them with a means by which to take up arms against the voices that lure them into acts of violence.