It is a cliché to say that the world is a violent place. Violence, in all of its various forms, has been a common characteristic of societies throughout human history.
As a criminologist, I am interested in the causes and correlates of violence. There are many theories about the causal factors associated with violence but one that I find particularly powerful is known as the General Strain Theory (GST) of crime. A leading criminologist, Dr. Robert Agnew, at Emory University, developed the GST.
According to GST, crime, including acts of violence, is the result of emotional strain in one’s life. Strain can result from either losing something of value, such as a career or marriage, or it can result from failing to attain something of value, such as financial stability or educational goals. Strain can also result from having dysfunctional and strained personal relationships.
Strain in one’s life leads to negative emotions such as sadness, depression, anxiety or anger. According to GST, when negative emotions take the form of anger, they are most likely to lead to acts of crime, particularly violence. Think of domestic violence and so-called road rage as key examples of this.
This is not to say that anger resulting from strain always leads one to commit a crime. Obviously, that is not the case. We all get angry from time to time but most of us do not respond to it by committing an act of crime. Some people yell and scream, while others may drink alcohol and get drunk. The stable ones among us simply wait a while and cool off.
The key point of GST is that there is a strong causal relationship between strain, anger, and crime. Importantly, the GST of crime is more than just an interesting theory.
Extensive research has shown that certain emotions are highly associated with crime, particularly acts of violence. Some of the primal and instinctual emotions associated with violence are pride, jealousy, lust, and resentment. However, and consistent with the GST of crime, contemporary research reveals that the human emotion most likely to lead to violence is anger.
Anger or rage is associated with a wide variety of violent acts, including homicide, aggravated assault, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, bullying, torture, and even terrorism.
Consider the relationship between murder and anger. There are many more killings committed spontaneously and in anger (known as voluntary manslaughter) than those committed with premeditation and after careful deliberation. In fact, first-degree murder—that is, premeditated murder committed after deliberation, is the smallest category of murder.
Moreover, because it involves planning, first-degree murder is most likely to be committed for a reason other than anger, such as financial gain.
There are also considerable gender differences in homicide. Women are more likely to respond to strain with sadness or depression than are men who are more likely to respond with anger. Moreover, men are much more likely to express their anger in physical violence than are women. Therefore, it is no coincidence that men are responsible for nearly ninety 90 of all murders.
The relationship between anger and violence makes perfect sense when you consider that anger, particularly when it escalates into rage, is an active emotion fueled by adrenaline. Anger demands action, and violence provides a cathartic release or response to the adrenaline-fueled demands of anger.
Significantly, the criminal perpetrator who strikes out in blind rage is often unable to explain his own violent behavior after the fact. Such acts of violence committed in a blind rage are often referred to as crimes of passion.
In this regard, think of anger as an intoxicant like alcohol that alters the mental state of a person and drives him to commit a terrible act that he would not do under normal circumstances. Now, consider the fact that the majority of murders are committed when the perpetrator actually is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Clearly, alcohol and drugs are to anger what gasoline is to a fire. In both cases, they provide fuel for an explosion.
However, based on my experience as a criminologist, I have concluded that anger is not a primary emotion. Anger is a secondary emotion or reaction. I believe that fear is actually the root of all anger.
I have interviewed some very violent criminals and my candid conversations with these individuals have taught me that their violence as adults is largely a response to fear and resentments that were not resolved in childhood. In fact, the most violent adults I have ever met are those who have tremendous underlying fears of rejection, inadequacy, failure, and abandonment.
Their violence as adults is a childlike response to a frightening world that they believe has been unfair to them and is deserving of punishment.
Think of the man who kills his spouse or lover in a jealous rage—that is, a crime of passion, otherwise known as voluntary manslaughter. In such a case, the rage the man acts upon is rooted in his fear of rejection, abandonment, and the betrayal of his lover.
A powerful example of homicide driven by rage and underlying fear is the case of David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam serial killer. I had the opportunity to correspond with and interview Berkowitz a few years ago and he described profound childhood feelings of inadequacy and fear combined with tremendous resentment when he learned that his biological mother had abandoned him and his adoptive parents had lied to him about it.
Although most people would not become serial killers based on his childhood experiences, I contend that the Son of Sam emerged and went on a killing spree of epic proportions in New York City in 1976 because David Berkowitz was a lost, frightened, insecure, and angry little boy who never grew up.
To say that violence is driven by anger, and that anger is rooted in fear, is not to mitigate the culpability of a frightened and angry murderer or any other criminal that engages in violence after experiencing fear and rage. On the contrary, we all need to make rational choices in our lives regardless of our emotional state, and we are all legally responsible for our actions.
However, the law notwithstanding, my experience as a criminologist has shown me that there are times when human emotions trump rationality, and no emotion is more powerful or motivating than fear. If you doubt this conclusion, ask a violent person to look beneath his anger and describe his feelings. If he is honest, he will describe his fear.
I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers like David Berkowitz and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) with whom I personally corresponded, in my bestselling book, Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.