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The Psychology of Preventing Murder

Emotional literacy as risk management.

Key points

  • Aggression is a dangerous, life-threatening problem in our culture.
  • If not stopped, the chain of enacted violence begins with anger and too often progresses to irrevocable human tragedy.
  • Understanding the emotions leading to acted-out violence is emotional risk management.
  • Emotional awareness and literacy offer tools to modify aggression and halt its destructiveness.
Original oil painting by author FJN, 2000
Source: Original oil painting by author FJN, 2000

Emotions characterize the heartbeat of us all. When non-conscious emotional sensations blend, complex feelings emerge. Elementary emotions make up subjective experiences and complicated feelings follow.

This essay explains anger, hate, hostility, and aggression as distinct feelings. Could understanding these emotions be risk management for identifying potential threats, and possibly even preventing murder? Examining dynamic systems, such as the faces of anger, its ubiquity as aggressive violence, and strategies that tame it, may be key to mitigating its malignancy.

Feelings: Complex Blends of Emotions

As simple emotions unfold, their sensations become conscious feelings, sometimes negative. The motivations, causes, reasons, and driving forces determining aggression emerge from non-conscious and conscious intentions that can often be challenging to understand, if not inscrutable. Typically, only obvious and logical motives become clear; however, they remain surface aims. Hidden variables continue to govern feelings.

Motivation includes rewards, punishments, desires, needs, expectations for achievement, and reinforcing self-efficacy in abilities. Whether premeditated or impulsive or both, those who commit heinous crimes harbor menacing ill will.

Those with little or no empathetic insight seldom seek feedback, counseling, therapy, or rational discussion. For everyone, emotional systems are the web lying beneath. For those prone to extreme anger, subliminal seething and malignant hostility build, sometimes crossing the fantasy-realty line into enacted violence. The chain of frustration, anger, and hate grows, and satisfaction becomes quelled only by the aggressive “acting out” of harbored ill will.


Characterized by feeling wronged, threatened, or thwarted, anger is an acute, momentary offensive (i.e., attacking) or defensive (i.e., self-protective) reaction to a perceived threat, attack, and injury. Provocations begin as feeling hurt or annoyed, which threatens self-esteem. Anger can obscure more painful emotions, such as abandonment or loss. Triggers provoke frustration. Unrequited sexual attraction and failed attempts at relationships, whether explicit or implicit, can instigate seething discontent—envy and jealousy. Anxiety and depression have a role.

Prolonged anger turns to wrath. Indignation, irritation, and rage ensue. The bio-mental nature of anger is measured by increased blood pressure and the activation of the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine. As angry dramas materialize, hate, hostility, and aggression emerge.


Hate is a powerful negative feeling. It develops with high intensity and long duration. An enemy is perceived, and with this skewed view, hate aims to control or occupy the threat in order to contain it. Since hate is an organized feeling developed through time, the relationship with the hated one becomes objectified and colored by strangeness and alienation. This precarious sense arouses anxiety and ambivalence: both avoidance and guardedness. Progressively, disparagement reinforces distancing. Whereas hate is deeply felt, hatred becomes more enduring, often silently felt and intractable.


Hostility begins by noticing an actual or fantasized “other”—an “enemy,” a harmful and destructive threat. This fear correlates with the opposition between primitive tribal allegiances (“us versus them”). We see this in everyday life, with sports teams, political groups, and elsewhere. Those who feel hostility may feel apart from everyone else.

Hostility has the goal of subduing the other. Deep enmity festers as an ill will resisting and opposing what is perceived as unacceptable and imminently threatening. Hostility leads to mean, and aggressive actions used defensively for protection from this threat.


Aggression is consciously recognized thinking, language, or physical forcefulness accompanied by violent action. While hate is expressed as threatening, aggression is enacted, material destructiveness. Violence is difficult to justify for self-defense but inciting violence is never justified. The question of war is a significant and complex dilemma: part of the human condition and beyond the scope of this discussion. Domination-submission themes abound. Neuroanatomically, the brain’s amygdala, the threat center, triggers aggression. The threat then reaches the conscious prefrontal cortex (PFC), where meaning, motives, and aggression-management decisions are made.

Fear, control, dominance, and resource conflicts contribute to instigating aggression. An underlying foundation is impaired emotional awareness: the capacity to sense, distinguish, categorize, label, understand, and adaptively use an emotion’s arousal and direction.

The inability to classify emotional expressions accurately has been shown to link intimately with aggressive behaviors and self-reported psychopathy.

If one adds the emotional meanings from conflictual experiences, traumas, temperament, personality, and character, misperceptions, and enhanced sensitivity to anger come into play.

Aggression may include behaviors such as bullying, intimidation, stalking, threatening, verbal hostility, theft, destruction of property, fighting, combat, war, and any form of forceful control. The fear elicited in victims by such threatening behaviors is powerful; its personal and socially disruptive influence cannot be ignored.

Anti-social (i.e., pervasive disrespect for and the infringement of the rights of others) and criminal behaviors are often aggressive. Approximately 80 percent of criminals fall into the "anti-social" category. Their characteristics include hyper-responsivity to threats, being quick-tempered, and aggression.

Those with psychopathy or psychopathic traits show a low responsivity to a threat, appear emotionally cold, and use premeditated aggression. Terrorism is lived-out violent aggression in the political arena. Thus, aggression refers to any form of forceful control or inflicted cruelty causing pain and psychological or physical suffering.

Defensive aggression is self-protective, reacting to a perceived wrong, a persecuting or feared object or person. Violence that comes from defensive aggression is fear-induced, impulsive, and protective. Such socially observable aggression is expressed in intra-male, territorial, and maternal aggression. This type of aggression correlates with high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in one's blood.

Offensive aggression is premeditated and is the “cold” aggression characteristic of the predator-prey situation seen in animals engaged in food acquisition and survival. From a physiological perspective, offensive aggression correlates with low cortisol, high testosterone, and low levels of serotonin in the blood. Callous, unemotional traits in adult psychopaths are associated with offensive attacks.

Emotional Awareness and Literacy Can Modify Aggression

Emotional awareness and literacy help improve aggression’s blind spots. With foresight and identification, prediction and de-escalation are rational risk-management tools. Pause and self-reflect to identify feelings, distinguish and accurately categorize, label, and consider alternative strategies to handle anger, lessening impulsivity and harmful choices.

Clarity of emotions is understanding and differentiating implicit feelings. This capacity modulates negative emotionality and reduces aggression. Mindfulness, pausing with one’s felt experience, and strategies encompassing behavior-changing approaches, such as anger management, contribute to change. Outcomes include softening rigid stereotypes, diminishing implicit biases, and upgrading long-held skewed perspectives, making them adaptively healthier for oneself and society.


Ninivaggi, F. J. (2017). Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Richard, Y., Tazi, N., Frydecka, D. et al. (2022). A systematic review of neural, cognitive, and clinical studies of anger and aggression. Curr Psychol.

Haller, József. 2020. Neurobiopsychosocial Perspectives on Aggression and Violence: From Biology to Law Enforcement. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG.

Juste, A. and M. Schonenberg, (2016).“Impaired social cognition in violent offenders: perceptual deficit or cognitive bias?” European Archives of Psychiatry Clinical Neuroscience. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 27623869 doi:10.1007/s00406-016-0727-0.

R. J. Blair, Mitchell, D.G., and K. Blair (2005). The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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