Aggression and Alcohol: Beliefs about Permissiveness of Violence

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Statistics regarding the prevalence of violence make the connection between alcohol consumption and aggression readily apparent. According to Dr. Peter R. Giancola, a professor and researcher of alcohol-related aggression at the University of Kentucky, “over 50% of violent acts occur under the influence of alcohol by the perpetrator.” As a bouncer at a bar in Nothern Wisconsin, I was able to witness this connection first hand. Almost nightly, bouts of violence would erupt, and I was required to defuse them. I noticed that, each time this happened, the individuals involved were highly intoxicated. Nevertheless, the vast majority of individuals are able to consume alcohol without becoming aggressive. This begs the question: is violence an inherent side effect of alcohol consumption, or are there other factors involved?

This was the question posed by a trio of researchers investigating the relationship between alcohol consumption and aggressive behavior. Dr. Giancola, the lead author of the study, states that the goal of the project was to, “isolate variables that put persons at risk for violence when under the influence of alcohol.” The researchers chose to examine the relationship between aggression while using alcohol and an individual’s beliefs about the permissiveness of violence, testing the hypothesis that, “persons who believe that violence is normal and permissive will become much more aggressive under alcohol when inhibitions are lifted.”

To test their theory, the researchers conducted two experiments. The first involved having participants complete a questionnaire about the acceptability of using violence and then dividing them into two groups, with one consuming alcoholic beverages and the other consuming a placebo. After the alcohol had taken effect, the participants were asked to engage in a reaction-time task against a fictitious opponent. Upon winning the task, the participants were able to administer a shock to the non-existent opponent. The same experiment was then replicated with a different set of participants.   The researchers found that aggression, as measured by the length and intensity of the shocks administered by the participants was significantly higher in the participants who consumed alcohol and had more permissive beliefs about violence.

One important aspect of the results is that, even though the experiments were conducted in a laboratory setting, they can be easily applied to real-world settings. Therefore, the early detection of permissive beliefs about violence can be of use in a variety of anger treatment programs, including, “one-on-one clinical interventions, anger group interventions, and public health interventions.” In addition, the results provide an important implication for the prevention of alcohol-related anger in new generations. Specifically, parents can potentially pass their permissive beliefs about violence onto their children. This creates an unfortunate cycle, as, “children will adopt the beliefs of their parents at a young age. Once those beliefs are solidified in memory, they are difficult to erase.” Thus, it is important for new or expecting parents to assess their beliefs about violence in order to prevent passing them on, and possibly perpetuating alcohol-related violence. Overall, given the versatile nature of the results, it seems Dr. Giancola and his colleagues have taken a tremendous step toward increasing the effectiveness of treatment programs, and, hopefully, decreasing the prevalence of alcohol-related violence.

By Matthew Machnik
Matthew Machnik is a senior Psychology major at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  He has a minor in Human Development and plans on attending graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.

Five Facts About Guns, Anger, and Violence

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Gun policy debate appears to be heating up across the country, prompting much discussion about the relationship between guns and violence.  Unfortunately, such discussions are rarely data-driven and typically reflect sound bites of the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and the “more guns, more crime” variety.

To counter that, below are five facts about guns, anger, and violence.

Seeing a gun increases aggression.  It may sound strange but researchers have known since a 1967 study by Berkowitz and LePage that the presence of a weapon increases aggression.   It is an example of a psychological phenomenon referred to as priming whereby, because we associate weapons and violence (due to prior experience), seeing a weapon activates our aggression script.  Priming occurs in a variety of contexts.   In fact, it is a well known concept in advertising because certain stimuli encourage certain behaviors (e.g., just as seeing a weapon activates our aggression script, seeing food activates our eating script).  The findings from the 1967 study have been replicated many times including a 1998 study by Anderson and colleagues that asked “does the gun pull the trigger” and found that “extant research suggests that it does” (p.313).

Holding a gun increases testosterone. The above findings on priming along with research suggesting that testosterone is associated with aggression in humans and animals prompted Klinesmith and colleagues (2005) to look at the relationship between guns, testosterone, and aggression.  Remarkably, what they found was that when participants (all males) interacted with a gun for 15 minutes, their testosterone levels increased and they were more likely to engage in an aggressive act than those participants who interacted with a children’s toy.  The authors state that, though their study is “far from definitive, its results suggest that guns may indeed increase aggressiveness partially via changes in the hormone testosterone” (p. 570).

Possessing a gun increases the chance of dying in a gun related assault.  An often cited reason for owning a gun is the need for protection.  Though this has received considerable attention in the literature on gun violence, the most recent and, arguably, the most thorough is a 2009 study by Branas and colleagues exploring the link “between being shot in an assault and possession of a gun at the time” (p. 2034).  The authors found that those in possession of a gun were more than 4 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not holding a gun.  In those instances when the victim had the opportunity to fight back, those in possession of a gun were more than 5 times more likely to be shot.  The authors conclude that “although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur, the findings of this study do not support the perception that such successes are likely” (p.  2037)

When people are angry, they are more likely to think a neutral object is a gun.  A 2010 project explored the impact of our emotional state on threat detection.  The researchers, Baumann and DeSteno, induced various emotions and asked participants to quickly identify whether or not an object was a gun.  Across several tests, participants who were angry were more likely to misidentify a neutral object as a gun, suggesting that in an emotionally heated situation (like a potentially violent encounter), people are likely to error in the perception of the situation.  Specifically, they are likely to assume the person they are in conflict with has a weapon when he or she does not.

The data on right-to-carry laws are inconclusive.  Those in favor of concealed carry laws often point to a series of books by John Lott, including the 1998 book titled More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws (the third edition was published in 2010).  His books argue that crime rates go down when states pass concealed carry laws.  Lott’s explanation is that criminals are deterred from violence for fear of being shot by a legally armed citizen.  Consequently, the more gun owners in a community, the less violent crime in that community.  Not surprisingly, his books have been criticized by gun control advocates for a variety of reasons including using a limited sample, ignoring important variables, and ignoring data from other samples with contrary findings.  Later editions of the book have sought to address these criticisms.  However, in a 2004 review of the literature on gun violence, which included Lott’s data (found here), Wellford and colleagues conclude that “with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 150).  Likewise, they argue that “additional analysis along the lines of the current literature is unlikely to yield results that will persuasively demonstrate a causal link between right-to-carry laws and crime rates” (p. 151) and they call for different types of research on this question.

By Ryan C. Martin

Anger on the Internet: What’s a Rant-Site?

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You don’t have to look too hard to find anger on the internet.  Whether through weblogs, social networking websites, or online discussion forums, people use the Internet to express their anger on a variety of topics. Online news sources routinely allow for public comments, often providing a venue for reader anger. Likewise, there are entire websites, called rant-sites, dedicated to allowing people to vent online  and a series of studies I and three other authors presented at the 2011 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association Annual Convention explored the use of these websites, including what people get out of expressing their anger in such a way.

Rant-sites are exactly what they sound like.  They are websites designed for people to rant or vent about any topic they choose.  For an example of one of the most popular rant-sites, go to www.justrage.com.  Be warned, however, that such websites are not for the faint of heart.  Much of what you read there is offensive and some of it seems to qualify as hate-speech.  Though Just Rage has a policy against racism and hate speech, that policy doesn’t appear to be well enforced.

The project we presented included two studies exploring different facets of rant-site use.  We decided to start this line of research because so little is known about how anger is expressed online and what writers seem to get out of it.  We choose rant-sites because we thought that what happens on these websites is part of a bigger problem that is happening on social networking websites, discussion forums, etc. Our hope was to better understand why people express their anger online the way they do and what they perceive as the value of such expressions.

The first thing we did was to look simply at the content of the rants on several of these websites.  We found that, more often than not, rants are directed at a specific person, usually a spouse or romantic partner.  When not a particular person, rants were almost always directed at a large subgroup like a religious group or a political party.  By far, the most common reason for the rant was some sort of pet peeve or daily irritation (e.g., people who complain, spouse being late all the time, having to install toolbars on their web browser when they download computer software).

The second study surveyed users of such websites to learn more about how/why they use the website along with how they experience and express anger in general.  What we found was that every participant responded by indicating that they usually feel calm, relieved, or relaxed after writing their rants.   This finding alone is a bit surprising as catharsis, the act of venting or “letting it out”, is well known to have unhealthy long-term consequences.  The reports of decreased anger, then, could likely indicate that they are feeling angrier as they write the rant and that anger decreases when they are done.  They interpret that decrease as feeling relaxed and don’t recognize the increase in anger they experienced while writing.

Another interesting finding here is the sense of community that seems to develop on some of these websites.   Most participants were hoping for some sort of interaction through comments on their rants.  They reported wanting people to validate their feelings, make them laugh, or even to disagree with them.  In some ways, you could think of these websites as anonymous social networking sites where people know each other by their usernames (though, they don’t all have user names).

One of the more striking findings is that visitors of rant-sites are a fairly angry bunch in general with approximately 60% of them scoring above the 75 percentile on a measure of anger.  Likewise, approximately 10% of them reported having had a physical fight in the last month and almost all of them reporting a having a verbal fight in the last month.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot that we don’t know about online anger.  Frankly, the big problem with this line of research is that it’s very hard to find participants.  We tried to attract them with the possibility of winning a drawing for a gift card.  Though we had enough participants to do some basic analyses, it was very hard to attract people who were interested in participating.  They are posting anonymously for a reason and are not interested in providing too much information.  We had a similar problem when conducting another study on news discussion forums.  Participants just don’t want to provide much information about themselves and, until we solve that problem, we aren’t going to know much about this type of anger expression.

By Ryan C. Martin
Special thanks to my three co-authors for this presentation: Kelsey Ryan Coyier, Leah M. Van Sistine, and Kelly L. Schroeder