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Why Do People Resort to Violence?

Psychology reveals the eternal spark that ignites our fiery rage.

I can't help but cringe every time I hear on the news of another parent killing his or her child, youth killing classmates, or coworkers shooting coworkers. Many people ask, "What's wrong with these people? Why is there so much violence in our world?"

In my 30 years of experience and research, I have identified numerous factors that determine our behavior and whether a person is at risk for developing violent tendencies. These factors include biological traits, family bonding, individual characteristics, intelligence and education, child development, peer relationships, cultural shaping and resiliency.

One factor can affect and be affected by another factor. When the accumulation of negative factors (such as maltreatment, chaotic neighborhoods, or psychological problems) and the absence of positive factors (such as opportunities to be successful, adults who provide encouragement, or a resilient temperament) reach a threshold, that's when violence is more likely to erupt as a means of coping with life's problems.

Here's an example of how this can play out: A boy was born into an unstable and confused family environment. Due to his mother's teenage, unwed status, he was raised by his grandparents and was led to believe, until later in his childhood, that his mother was his older sister. Though his real mother would eventually take him and move away, the boy spent his earliest years in a house where his grandfather was mentally erratic and physically abusive. As a young child, the boy began to demonstrate disturbing behavior. Julia, his mother's sister, remembers waking up from a nap one day and being surrounded by kitchen knives and the boy watching and smiling at her, standing by the bed.

As a youth, he was handsome but socially inept. In middle school, he was the victim of bullies. By high school, he was superficially social and a trouble maker. He was reported to be a thief, a shoplifter, an amateur conman, and a neighborhood peeping tom.

Although grade-wise he was a good student in high school, as an adult, he had a spotty work record. Due to his immaturity, he failed to fit in while attending college. He became obsessed with his first love even after she broke up with him. He was devastated and dropped out of school, and eventually took revenge by manipulating her into falling in love with him again, proposing marriage, and then shutting her out without warning. He later explained that he just wanted to prove that he could have married her if he wanted to.

While the earliest suspicion of his murders occurred when he was 15, his first known killing took place when he was 27. It was to mark the beginning of a murder spree that would last four years, spanning from Washington State to Utah to Florida. With his handsome looks and cool demeanor, he wooed, tricked and ambushed dozens of women into fulfilling his sick fantasies. Eventually, the killer, Ted Bundy, was tried and convicted of multiple murders and executed in 1989. He confessed to killing 30 women although he is suspected of killing up to 100.

When you look at a case like this, you can literally see the negative factors overpowering the positive ones. Though Bundy was intelligent, relatively good-looking, grew up in a neighborhood that seemed fairly normal, and had the educational opportunities to be successful, it is clear that he suffered from psychological problems. These problems may have stemmed from the abusive environment he'd lived in during his early life, from the deceit surrounding his biological parentage, and from the lack of healthy guidance from an adult figure in his family. Bundy may have also developed an interpersonal attachment disorder, the evidence being his difficulty to form successful bonds with pro-social peers. The bullying in middle school certainly didn't help either. Though none of these things excuse what Bundy did, they may help explain his behavior.

It's important to realize how positive and negative factors play a role in the lives of children, youth, and young adults. Sometimes the adjustment of a few factors, such as establishing a close relationship with a supportive adult, receiving pro-social peer encouragement, or getting protection from a violent family, could be what makes the difference between whether a person becomes a violent offender or not. With this in mind, we should always look for the places we can make a positive impact, no matter how small, in bettering the lives of others.

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