Science of Violent Behavior

Recent discoveries have been made about the invisible workings of the brain in the fields of social psychology, neurology, and epidemiology that have shed some light on how violent behaviors are formed.

What does science tell us about the causes of violent behavior?

  1. Most behaviors – including violent behavior – are actually acquired or learned.
  2. Most of this learning is not intentional or classroom-based; rather, learned. behaviors come from modeling, observing, imitating, or copying. (This is sometimes called social learning.)
  3. Most of this social learning is unconscious – meaning behaviors are picked up without our awareness of it.
  4. Exposure to violence increases one’s risk of becoming violent, transmitting from one person to another in the same manner as a contagious disease.
  5. Neurological events mediate this contagion and there are additional physiological effects from both witnessing and trauma that accelerate the contagion.
  6. Social norms, scripts, and perceived social expectations further exacerbate this contagion by encouraging violent behavior to spread.

What all of this tells us is that violence is transmitted in the same manner as a disease. It has been said for a long time that violence begets violence, but it is just as tuberculosis begets tuberculosis, or flu begets flu, that violence begets violence.

And this is true for all types of violence: from child abuse and intimate partner violence to community violence and genocide.


How can we use this scientific understanding to stop violence?

A scientific strategy means that we don’t look at “good” and “bad” people, but instead looks for desirable and undesirable events, or “outcomes.” Most importantly, it employs what we know from decades of experience in reversing other epidemics.

The reversal of epidemics is primarily reliant not on antibiotics or vaccines, which do not exist for many diseases, but on behavior change that stops the spread of the disease. Therefore, this new strategy to eradicate violence must use behavior change techniques that are based not on moralistic or sociological diagnoses, but on proven scientific findings.

The biggest thing that science tells us is that violence is not inevitable. We can create a world were violence is a rare occurrence, like plague or cholera is today. There are scientifically informed approaches that have been refined for decades in epidemiology that can change unhealthy behaviors.


Learn more about the science of violent behavior

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