Insight into the Violent Mind
Identifying the negative thought processes that contribute to violence.
Posted Jan 07, 2019
Both glamorizing and demonizing violence help us avoid having to understand the violent mind. We should enter the violent person’s subjective world, not just in order to be able to offer treatment, but also to anticipate the nature of the risks they embody both to themselves and to society.
—Peter Fonagy, “Towards a Developmental Understanding of Violence” (2003)
The World Health Assembly recently declared that violence has become a major and growing public health problem internationally. Studies have shown that violence—an extreme expression of aggression toward others—and suicide—an extreme manifestation of aggression directed against the self, overlap to a certain extent. Researchers have long attempted to better understand why some individuals act out aggression toward themselves while others express their anger outwardly. Part of the answer appears to lie in identifying the negative thought processes experienced by those who are at high risk for either suicide or violence.
Over the past four decades, my colleagues and I have observed clinical material that has expanded my understanding of human destructiveness toward both self and others. I became aware of an underlying critical thought process that is at the core of all forms of maladaptive behavior. I termed this critical thought process the “voice.” It represents the internalization of painful experiences and negative attitudes that were directed toward the child. This enemy within causes people to feel negative and hostile toward themselves and fearful, angry, and suspicious toward others.
Historically, in studying the voices associated with suicidal ideology, Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. and I developed a scale to predict the potential for suicide. Items were based on a series of increasingly negative self-critical thoughts and self-attacks. Clients were asked to endorse which items they experienced and how frequently. The scale effectively distinguishes suicidal from non-suicidal individuals at a high level of significance. We applied this same logic to understanding and predicting violence and developed a scale composed of angry, attacking thoughts in relation to others. Our study was successful in exposing the dynamics involved in acts of aggression and violence.
Critical Inner Voices Underlying Violent Behavior
The critical inner voice supports an individual’s negative identity, leading to both self-attacks and hostility toward others. This helped me to identify a split in the personality between the self system and the anti-self system. The division of the mind reflects a primary divide between forces that represent the self and those that oppose or attempt to destroy it.
Destructive actions directed against other people occur when feelings of frustration are combined with negative cognitive processes. Since people filter events through the voice process, during times of stress even innocuous incidents can be imbued with a negative loading.
Some people tend to distort others or view them with suspicion, resulting in a basic paranoid or victimized orientation toward life. Their voices impart negative information to them about others: He’s just taking advantage of you. Or, She's always intruding into your life. Extreme negative voices are at the core of all forms of criminal and domestic violence and explosive behavior.
People who act out violent impulses justify their actions as being rightfully deserved by their victims. A mode of thinking that rationalizes revengeful action is also characteristic of perpetrators of domestic violence: She had it coming to her. She knew which buttons to push to make me explode. Or, I'll get even with that bastard. Maybe next time he'll think twice before he messes with me.
A paranoid orientation stems from the projection of one's own negative emotions and voices onto others. When people fear their anger, they tend to disown it by projecting it onto others. Then they perceive them as threatening and dangerous, tend to act out preemptively against others and often provoke the very aggression or abusive treatment they fear. The end result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a spiraling effect that can culminate in an escalation of aggressive behavior or violence.
Exploring the Roots of Violence
The epidemic of violence in our country is closely related to both familial and social conditions. Therefore, a focus on the child’s early experiences, the parent-child relationship, parental traits, and child-rearing practices can provide insight into how childhood trauma and the resultant shame are internalized in the form of hostile thoughts and attitudes toward others, which can later culminate in acts of violence.
Identification with the Aggressor: When anger and aggression, both overt and covert, are directed toward children, they often take on the identity of the all-powerful, angry parent. They incorporate the parent’s angry attitudes which leads to the essential dualism within the personality between the self and the anti-self systems. Although the defense of identifying with the aggressor helps to allay anxiety, in so doing, the child necessarily internalizes the parent’s anger or rage, which he/she may later unleash in assaultive, violent acts against others. Violence can be conceptualized as a reactivation or acting out of this internalized aggression.
Dissociation: Individuals who experienced abusive, neglectful or traumatic childhoods and who dissociated during these episodes tend to experience voice attacks that are more destructive in content, with more frequency and with greater intensity than those who experienced less severely abusive or non-abusive childhoods. Research shows that dissociation and impaired brain functioning that occur under stressful circumstances, (i.e., witnessing violence and/or being a victim of physical child abuse) predispose aggression and/or violent acting-out behavior in adolescents and adults.
Pilot Studies to Develop the Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts
[FAVT]: As part of the pilot studies used to develop the FAVT, Lisa Firestone had the rare opportunity to conduct in-depth interviews with a number of inmates at the Grendon Therapeutic Prison in Oxford, England and at the Restorative Justice Program [RSVP] in the San Francisco Jail. In both settings, the men revealed the destructive voices they experienced prior to their assaultive act as well as certain aspects of their life history. For example, one inmate at Grendon who is serving a life sentence for murder disclosed the thoughts he experienced in the moments leading up to his violent act:
N: I was thinking to myself, What’s he lookin’ at? What’s he doin’? Does he think he can have one over on me? Does he think he can do this? So I just started attackin’ em all, until the point where I beat a guy to death. I do understand now that a lot of it was just my thoughts and my fears, and me paranoia. I was really fearful of strange people because it wasn’t just me uncle that abused me when I was a kid; it was a multitude of people.
A man in the RSVP program, who is serving time for domestic violence, revealed the following voices:
D: I needed to let her know who is the boss here. You don’t play me like this. Then I thought, She’s no good. She’s wrong. She’s a tramp. She’s this, she’s that. This is when I hit her—my ex-partner.
Participants in the RSVP treatment program began their group discussions by “checking in” with regard to their two identities: their “authentic self” and their “hit man” persona, concepts that are analogous to the self and the anti-self. The men gave the concepts their own labels, terms that were meaningful to them. For example, in a meeting, a former inmate, now a group facilitator, revealed:
S: My ‘hitman’ is the justified, vengeful equalizer. So, I’m justified in my violence, I get back at people, I have revenge. I even the score. That’s the equalizer. That’s the role I play. My ‘authentic self’ is a gentle, loving, giving man. And these days, I stay there most of the time.
Follow up for the RSVP Program showed the re-offending rate was 83 percent lower than for the prisoners who had been in an ordinary jail. Similarly, a follow-up at Grendon Therapeutic Program showed that there is only a 20 percent risk of recidivism in men who had been in the program for 18 months.
Assessing the Potential for Violence
Identifying the specific thought processes that regulate aggressive behavioral responses is crucial to an accurate assessment of the violence potential in high-risk individuals. As noted, Lisa and I went on to develop an instrument, The Firestone Assessment of Violent Behavior [FAVT] to test this hypothesis and to provide mental health professionals and criminologists with a scale that could be used to determine an individual’s violence potential. Items on the FAVT were derived from actual hostile, antagonistic, paranoid statements revealed by inmates who were incarcerated for violent crimes. Empirical studies show that the FAVT distinguishes violent individuals from non-violent individuals at a high level of significance.
Reliability and validity studies conducted on the FAVT revealed five levels of destructive thinking that were significantly correlated with violent behavior:
Level 1 was labeled “Paranoid/Suspicious” and included voices such as You can only trust your own kind. Or Everybody knows something and they’re not telling you. Or Keep those immigrants out—they don’t deserve anything. Or You can never trust a woman.
Level 2 was labeled “Persecuted Misfit” and included voices such as, They don’t give one damn about you. Or They’re just doing this to get you upset. Or Nobody sees how much you contribute. No one appreciates you. Or He is just taking advantage of you.
Level 3 was labeled “Self-depreciating/Pseudo-independent” and included voices such as, You’re really in trouble now. Nobody believes you. Or You’d better look after yourself. No one else will. Or You were always a troublemaker. It’s always your fault.
Level 4 was labeled “Overt Aggressive” and included voices such as, Smash him (her) if he (she) doesn’t listen. You’ll show hher who’s boss! Or Doesn’t that gun feel good in your hand?
Level 5 was labeled “Self-Aggrandizing Thoughts” and included voices such as, You’re a very special person. Or You can do anything you put your mind to. Or You’re really strong. Interestingly, narcissistic rage aroused by events perceived as threatening to the perpetrator's vanity or inflated self-esteem has been found to be a factor in many cases of both domestic and criminal violence.
The key to understanding violence lies in exposing what is going on in the mind of the violent individual and in identifying and verbalizing the destructive thoughts that drive acts of criminal and social violence. The degree to which internalized, hostile voices escalate or become more intense will determine the degree of violent behavior. Becoming aware of a build-up of cynical, critical voices toward others and recognizing them as a warning sign can help prevent such thoughts from being translated into destructive actions
Finally, research shows that most of the violence in our society is perpetrated by a relatively small number of people who keep re-offending. In an appropriate therapeutic setting, the majority of these individuals could be exposed to a treatment program that could spare their suffering and that of future victims.
Firestone, R. W., & Firestone, L. (2008a). Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts (FAVT) manual. Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Firestone, R. W., & Firestone, L. (2008b). Firestone Assessment of Violent Thoughts— Adolescent (FAVT-A) manual. Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Fonagy, P. (2003). Towards a developmental understanding of violence. British Journal of Psychiatry, 183(3), 190-1921https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.183.3.190