Preventing the Development of Violence

Ronald Goldman, PhD

The United States is one of the most violent developed countries in the world. Our homicide rate is seven times that of some European countries and nineteen times that of Japan. There is an average of about one school shooting a week. One-third of American women are physically assault by a partner, the leading cause of injury to women. One in five women are raped.

Our society generally responds to violence with more security and protection for ourselves and jails for offenders. Other responses include more policemen on the street and better intelligence gathering. These measures are helpful, but they only treat symptoms and do not get to the root of the problem.

Early Contributing Factors Connected with Antisocial Behavior

To explore factors that contribute to the origins of antisocial behavior, a psychological approach can be helpful. Little public attention is given to the relationship between infant behavior and later antisocial behavior. However, various long-term studies have demonstrated a connection between an angry temperament in infants and later aggression. What contributes to an angry temperament in infants?

The infant naturally reaches out toward pleasure. If the infant’s natural biological and psychological needs are not satisfied, the infant may have a build-up of tension and trauma. The original impulse becomes distorted by anxiety, fear, or anger.

The resultant secondary drives may become disguised by a social façade of quietness and obedience. Through the years and under certain conditions when internal and external stress becomes intolerable, the social façade may later crack, releasing repressed anger and antisocial or violent behavior.

Supporting Research

Investigators define inhibited temperament as withdrawal and high emotional stress that can be observed as early as infancy. An eight-year study of 440 American children age seven to thirteen at the start of the study showed that inhibited temperament predicted future violent behavior in teenagers better than race, ethnicity, class, or gender. An inhibited temperament can disguise repressed anger.

With sufficient psychological defenses, an inhibited person can be non-violent. Of course, being non-violent does not necessarily mean one escapes other psychological and behavioral problems. As individuals we have different styles of coping with unmet early needs and traumas.

The effects of not satisfying natural biological and psychological needs have been demonstrated by numerous studies of laboratory animals. When they were deprived of touch and movement stimulation, they had abnormal social and emotional behavior with increased violence like some humans with a similar history. Subsequent experiments on the development of violence demonstrated that these behavioral disturbances were accompanied by changes in brain development.

Cross-cultural studies can also be useful in examining the connections between the deprivation of physical pleasure and later violent behavior. The findings show that it is possible to predict the peaceful or violent tendencies of 39 out of 49 cultures (80% accuracy) from a single measure of mother-infant bonding: continuous baby carrying on the mother’s body throughout the day for the first year of life.

When the infant is not permitted to bond with the body of the mother, the likelihood of violence increases. In other words, a greater proportion of individuals may engage in violence even though most individuals do not.

Contributing Parental and Cultural Factors

Mother-infant body contact is limited in the U.S. for a variety of reasons. If parents overlook seeking their own pleasure, or if they experienced minimal body contact as children, they often block their child’s pleasure-seeking behavior and expression. Such parents may be susceptible to cultural conformity that discourages body contact. Influences include the corporate marketing of items like cribs and strollers that separate the mother from her infant and interfere with the satisfaction of the infant’s needs. American culture has changed, but the vital needs of infants have not changed.

Let’s Question Our Beliefs and Practices

Making significant progress in preventing violence requires satisfying infant needs including a healthy bond with the mother. This calls for questioning various unnatural cultural practices that diminish infant need satisfaction and can lead to unrecognized stress, repressed anger, trauma, altered brain development, and potential later antisocial behavior.

Satisfying infant needs requires commitment, responsiveness, questioning beliefs with an open mind and heart, informed decisions, trusting instincts, love, and support. Let us support both infants’ and parents’ needs as we seek to build a more peaceful society.