Violence as Social Incompetence

Why Child Abusers are Foolish

Posted Nov 23, 2014

        The title of this blog is “Incompetence” and my blog posts have mostly addressed different forms of personal--especially social—incompetence. In almost every posting, I explore the utility of a four factor model in explaining the form of incompetence that is being discussed. The current posting represents my first attempt to apply the model to the topic of interpersonal violence. It may surprise some readers to be told that violence is a form of social incompetence, but I believe that to be the case. In this paper, I (a) define and provide some examples of violence, (b) indicate why I believe violence to be a form of social incompetence, (c) illustrate how the four-factor model helps to explain why people engage in violence, and (d) discuss why the prediction of violence has proven so difficult a problem. Because violence is a very big topic, and my space here is limited, my examples mainly involve just one type of violence: physical abuse of a child.

                                Violence and Its Forms

        Violence can be defined broadly, to include such things as verbal aggression, suicide, and warfare. However, I am defining it fairly narrowly to mean the intentional use of physical force by one person against one or more other people and that has a high likelihood of inflicting harm. Thus, in this paper, I am mainly interested in physically aggressive acts committed by a single individual, even when the act is triggered or coerced by one or more other people. Violent acts can be placed along a “hot-cold” continuum, with hot violence occurring on the spur of the moment with little or no planning or forethought, while cold violence is planned and nurtured by the actor, over a period of time that could range from minutes to days or months. Violence can also be placed on a force continuum, ranging from minor force that leaves no visible signs of damage to major force the effects of which can involve permanent damage that can be visible for days, weeks or even years.

        Violence can be: (a) instrumental, in the service of an end (e.g., robbing a store or person, coercing sexual compliance, controlling the behavior of a child), or (b) it can be symbolic (expressing hatred or contempt, restoring damaged self-esteem or righting what was perceived as a wrong), or (c) it can be both. Violent acts can be one-time events, in a person who is generally non-violent, or it can be part of a (sometimes escalating) pattern in a person who is habitually violent. Most violent acts can be prosecuted, with punishment depending on: (a) degree of conscious intent, (b) the actor’s violence history; (c) the motive underlying the act, (d) the severity of the resulting harm, (e) the circumstances that led up to the act, and (f) evolving social mores (e.g., disciplining a child with a belt has gone from condoned to condemned in one generation). Although the harm implied in the above definition is mainly physical (ranging from slight pain to serious injury or death) emotional damage to the victim is also a common outcome of violence.

                        Why Violence is an Example of Social Incompetence

        Social incompetence can be approached as an input (e.g., engaging in a devalued behavior, such as resisting corrective feedback from an employer) or it can be approached as an outcome (e.g., failing to achieve some desired end, such as a job promotion, as a result of engaging in the devalued behavior). In this paper, I am mainly emphasizing outcome aspects.

        Interpersonal transactions can be viewed as attempts to achieve some goal, whether or not the actor is fully conscious of that goal. Using child abuse as an example, the use of physical punishment has the implicit goal of bringing about some desired change in the child’s behavior (e.g., ceasing crying or bedwetting, influencing the child to be better behaved, etc.), but it often has the opposite effect (e.g., continuing and even heightening crying or bedwetting, producing very maladaptive child behavior patterns, etc.). Most reputable childrearing experts, for example, emphasize that punishment should be a relatively small part of effective caregiving (which should mainly use a skillful combining of praise and ignoring), and physical (i.e., violent) correction is virtually never called for. If the social competence outcome of parenting is to be successful in influencing the short- and long-term behavior of children, then parents who are abusive are, almost without exception, miserable failures.

        In addition to failing to achieve implicit childrearing goals, violence directed against a child can also bring very undesired consequences for the actor, ranging from loss of employment and assets (for an example see the football player Adrian Peterson who was suspended for a year and lost multi-million dollar product endorsement contracts, after pleading guilty to beating his child), to being universally scorned, to ending up in jail. Almost all human beings would prefer to be employed, well-off, respected and free from incarceration. To the extent that violence against children jeopardizes one or all of those implicit goals, then the behavior can be considered both foolish and incompetent.

        An additional form of incompetence, for which Adrian Peterson again provides an example, is the leaving of very visible signs of the abuse. Whenever committing any crime (and I fully agree that child abuse is a crime) a smart perpetrator takes pains to cover up, and not advertise, his or her illegal activity. Given that physical punishment of children is commonplace, and widely accepted in the US (unlike Sweden, where even spanking was outlawed in 1979), if Adrian Peterson had been more restrained and careful in his use of corporal punishment he likely would not have suffered any negative consequences.

        Evidence that Peterson did not show restraint can be found in police photos (posted on several websites) of the four-year-old child’s wounds. To anyone who might think that this was just a case of corporal punishment but not really abuse, the truly shocking photos will likely change their mind. These photos, taken four days after the incident, show scratches all over the child’s lower body, injuries caused by the use of a switch made from a tree branch. A police report describes “cuts on the boy’s thighs and hands, with bruises on the lower back and buttocks.” According to a text message sent by Peterson to the child’s mother, the football player admitted striking his son in the testicles, writing “[I] got him in the nuts once I noticed. But I feel bad [about that]….” This suggests that Peterson lost control and did more damage than he perhaps had intended (he has publicly asserted that he did not intend to cause any injuries, and that using a switch was a mistake). However, the making of visible cuts and scratches on the child’s body indicates not only a lack of self-control, but ignorance of child abuse laws and a lack of understanding that such visible signs would possibly draw the attention of police, courts and the NFL.

                                How Four Factors Explain Violence

        If there is one truism about violence, it is that violent acts cannot be attributed to a single cause. Every actor behaves violently for a unique combination of reasons, and even within the same individual, a violent incident can be explained by more than one factor, and violence on one occasion can be explained differently than violence on another occasion. Here are the four explanatory factors in my model; again, I use child abuse—particularly the Adrian Peterson case--as an illustration.


Every violent attack is in response to some situation, although sometimes the situational trigger (such as a victim wearing a shirt in the wrong gang or sports team color) is extremely minimal. In the case of physical child abuse, the situational trigger is typically a child saying or doing something which the abuser finds unacceptable. In the case of Adrian Peterson the incident that triggered the adult’s violent reaction was when the child pushed another child off of a video game. Peterson, apparently having no understanding that this is very typical four-year-old behavior, saw this as a serious form of misbehavior, and he set out to teach the child “right from wrong.” Furthermore, while most of us would agree that it is appropriate to teach a child the importance of taking turns, the majority can think of non-violent ways of getting that point across, even if (as is possible, but unknown to me) this was not the first time the child had exhibited that behavior.

Another situational factor that was not present in the Peterson case, but which is found in many other abuse cases, occurs when the perpetrator is pressured or encouraged by another person, such as a spouse. That was the case in a notorious murder trial in which I was peripherally involved as an expert, where a child was fatally abused by his father who acted in part because his wife (the child’s step-mother) told him that he needed to act like a man and not allow his daughter’s habitual bed-wetting to go unpunished.


Incompetent behavior occurs when an actor lacks the knowledge, skills or inclination to use more competent methods for solving a particular problem. Obviously, Adrian Peterson has a very limited childrearing repertoire, as his default position for dealing with what he sees as defiance from a child appears to be coercive and violent. Cognition enters in here also, in his inability to discern risk (a) to the child (it is hard to believe that he could so unaware that repeated use of a stick by a physically powerful man such as himself could cause serious injuries to a 4-year-old), and (b) to his own reputation and career. (Risk-unawareness is the core defining feature of what I term “foolish action”). Such behavior can only be termed “stupid,” although I am not implying anything about Peterson’s general intelligence (smart people often behavior stupidly, as many posts in this column illustrate. However, there is a recent study which shows that less intelligence people are more likely to behave violently, which makes some sense although there are many likely confounds, such as social class.


Personality--a term that refers to individual differences in temperament, self-regulation, motivation, emotional reactivity, interpersonal style, worldview, and behavior tendencies—has a number of sub-factors. In terms of child abuse, the most obvious personality contributions are: (a) a tendency to misattribute intentional defiance to child behaviors, (b) a low tolerance of perceived child misbehavior, (c) a preference for physical control techniques, and (d) a pattern of similar acts in the past. In fact, there was at least one earlier credible allegation of physical abuse directed by Peterson against another of his several children.

Affect/ State

This last factor refers to an imbalance in self-regulation, which impels someone to behave violently or which reduces his or her ability to behave non-violently. Alcohol consumption reduces the ability to resist behaving violently, and it is commonly found that violent acts occur when someone was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I have seen no evidence that Peterson had been drinking when he assaulted his child with a stick, but it would not surprise me if he had been. An affective factor which is almost always operating in cases of child abuse is anger. Clearly, this was operating with Peterson, as it is inconceivable that he would assaulted his son so repeatedly and harshly unless he was very angry at him.

                          Why Violence is Difficult to Predict

Violence is very difficult to predict, as usually at least two of the four factors in the explanatory framework have to be present, and the strength of those factors can vary widely from one situation to another. For many individuals, even those who commit child abuse, a serious incident may occur only once, while similar situations in the past did not induce an abusive reaction, perhaps because the actor was under better control. Even for individuals who have been violent in the past, violent conduct is not an every day, or maybe even an every month, occurrence. Child abuse is a little different from other forms of violent behavior, in that children are guaranteed to behave less than perfectly on occasion, and caregivers with violent tendencies are bound to react abusively on more than one occasion. The one thing one can predict about a socially incompetent person is that their foolish tendencies are bound to reassert themselves in the future. It is just difficult to know when that will happen.

                            Copyright Stephen Greenspan