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We are barely beginning to recover from the gruesome Las Vegas attacks at James Aldean’s concert this past weekend. What we’ve learned so far about the killer shows next to no warning signs of a killer.
College students are at the cusp of their adult lives and may be wondering at this point, is this the world we want to live in? Can I feel free to go out with my friends? Am I safe to walk from one campus building to another without becoming a target? Will I risk my life by getting a job one day? Can I trust this society enough to raise my children in?
Thankfully, in these dire times of distress, we are able to show our humanity towards others in the manner of becoming human shields for others or stealing a pickup truck to quickly escort as many victims to the hospital as possible.
My core belief is that education is the key to solving societal problems. So, I would like to analyze this event by narrowing it down to aggression.
What is Aggression?
Aggression is not merely a term to describe an angry individual. Aggression refers to an action or behavior that has the intent to harm.
So, that begs the question, are hitmen or people paid to cause harm demonstrating aggression? The answer would be no because, given a choice between taking the money freely or causing harm without money, a hitman would likely opt in for the money since that would be the ultimate goal. A hitman would fall under a different category of aggression, otherwise known as instrumental aggression. So if an evil henchman’s primary goal was to gain money, his intention, although aggressive, would fall under instrumental aggression.
Unfortunately, not enough information has come to light about the Las Vegas shooter to determine the factors that led to this tragedy, but aggression comes to mind as it looks as if the primary motivation of this individual was to cause as much pain to others as possible.
Biological Inclinations towards Aggression
Although aggression often refers to behavior, there is no such thing as a biological gene although Haberstick, Schmitz, Young, and Hewitt (2006) found that aggressive behavior is possible to be inherited to an extent. Still, scientists have yet to discover whether or not an aggressive gene really exists.
One key influence on aggression is low arousal according to Gower and Crick (2011). A low heart rate and high testosterone have also been cited as a risk factor (Klinesmith, Kasser, & McAndrew, 2006). Other research has pointed out that deficiencies in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, involved in executing actions, can influence the risk of aggression.
A little-known fact about me is that I was a part of a boy’s wrestling team when I was younger. Throughout my tenure on the team, I realized that as the wrestling season progressed, the amount of aggression the teammates showed towards each other increased. I still have a small scar on my leg from one time a team member randomly decided to jump on my shin as I sat on the ground. Moreover, I also came home with more and more bruises after practice each day. Social psychologists like Edwards (2007) have noted multiple instances of how testosterone plays a role in aggression.
Should We Try to Punch It Out?
There is also a false belief out there that aggression is due to pent-up anger, and if we simply punch it out, we will reduce this aggression. Unfortunately, this myth may promote even more aggression as researchers have found that using the punch-it-out method only causes more aggression!
What Is Your Testosterone Level?
On a side note, companies like Verisana sell home-test kits that you can purchase to find out your testosterone level. One of my favorite podcasts This American Life did a show where they all tested their staff to find out whether their predictions about their co-workers’ levels of testosterone were accurate. I won’t spoil it for you, here is a link to hear the podcast.
Sociocultural Predictors of Aggression
The culture we live in often influences us in ways we may not even realize. A culture of honor often applies to the Southern region of the U.S. in which people avoid offending others intentionally, and live by way of never accepting improper behaviors of others.
Nisbett (1993) found that Southerners in the U.S. do not condone or endorse violence, yet he noted that argument-related homicides are substantially higher in Southern males as opposed to those of Northern males. Southern men also demonstrated higher inclinations toward aggressive behavior in response to insults substantiating the claim of the culture of honor in the South. In other words, when traveling in the South avoid ever insulting another individual.
A further area of concern is that areas in which the culture of honor exists, there is a higher likelihood of school shootings per capita (Brown et al, 2009).
Violence in the Media
One can simply not speak about aggression without mentioning violence in the media, video games, and etc. Cue the meme:
We live in a culture where music with pro-violence lyrics is marketed towards younger crowds. Music videos containing violence and premarital sex may have a significant behavioral impact by desensitizing viewers to the impact of these behaviors (“American Academy,” 1996). Moreover, exposure to pornography has also been cited as a risk factor for developing violent tendencies (Wright, Tokunaga, & Kraus, 2015).
While most people can say that they’ve seen enough violence in media and have never shown any aggressive behavior, this may not equate to all as many are still easily influenced by what they see and hear. Additionally, although we are not all affected equally, the amount of violence in the media should be of major concern as we move to improve the society we live in. We all share in the responsibility to make this world a better place.
Violent Video Games
I’m sure a large percentage of us have experienced violent video games. We all haven’t turned out to be mass murderers. Clive Thompson wrote about his past with violent shooting video games and never having a violent tendency. Then one day a gun was placed in his hand.
In his account, Thompson meets Army Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Grossman who has a degree in psychology. Grossman shows Thompson a gun and explains that this gun was used in a mass shooting of a church prayer circle by a 14 year old boy. The shooter had impeccable aim hitting all 8 targets, yet had never actually fired a physical gun in his life prior to the tragedy. So, how did he get such good aim?
Thompson takes the gun from Grossman and after a few squeezes on the trigger he has blown his target apart.
In fact, video games are excellent training devices for target practice, they are disturbingly accurate. When I joined the Air Force ROTC during my bachelor degree, the cadets were heavily encouraged to play the video game Halo and Call of Duty which are both first-person shooter video games.
With the accuracy normal civilians can master in shooting, it becomes further worrisome that they gain the ability to act out aggressively with a gun and actually make all of their targets.
How Can We Reduce Aggression Then?
So we are at a point where we really need to do something about violence in our society. What can be done? Can we market music with themes of peace and unity? Can we elect officials who share our desire to live in a peaceful world? Can we engage in educating others on self-control? The answer is yes, and it starts with each of us doing his/her part to help others.
Don’t be the person who encourages another to act on violence, you become an enabler of violence and aggression. When someone asks you to suggest a movie, tv show, book, or music, avoid promoting media that contains violent themes. We must all take it upon ourselves to make the world a better place. If you see violence, say something. Protect your own safety, but help others.
While this article has discussed to some extent the reasons behind aggression, there is much more to learn about ourselves and aggressive tendencies.
Have another opinion on aggression? The comment section is open to you.
You might also see my recent article and experience on school shootings.
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References and Further Reading
American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications Impact of music lyrics and music videos on children and youth (RE9144). (1996). Pediatrics, 98, 1219–1221.
Brown, R. P., Osterman, L. L., & Barnes, C. D. (2009). School Violence and the Culture of Honor. Psychological Science, 20(11), 1400 – 1405.
Edwards, David. (2007). Competition and testosterone. Hormones and behavior, 50, 681-683.
Gower, A. L., & Crick, N. R. (2011). Baseline autonomic nervous system arousal and physical and relational aggression in preschool: The moderating role of effortful control. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 81, 142 – 151.
Haberstick, B. C., Schmitz, S., Young, S. E. & Hewitt, J. K. (2006). Genes and developmental stability of aggressive behavior problems at home and school in a community sample of twins aged 7-12. Behavioral Genetics, 36, 809-819.
Klinesmith, J., Kasser, T. & McAndrew, F. T. (2006). Guns, testosterone, and aggression: An experimental test of mediational hypothesis. Psychological Science, 17, 568-571.
Nisbett, R. E. (1993). Violence and U.S. Regional Culture. American Psychology, 48(4), 441 – 449.
Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., & Kraus, A. (2015). A meta-analysis of pornography consumption and actual acts of sexual aggression in general population studies. Journal of Communication, 66, 183-205.