Do Violent Offenders Simply Lack the Capacity for Empathy? New Research Suggests it’s Not that Simple

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If the ability to empathize with another plays an important role in regulating and controlling one’s anger, empathy could ultimately be the key to avoiding violence in certain situations. Thus, it is easy to surmise that aggressive individuals or violent offenders must not be able to empathize in the way others are able.

In a recent study in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, author Dr. Andrew Day investigated this very question by examining the presence of perspective-taking abilities in violent prisoners and comparing them to a student sample with regard to anger and aggression. Perspective taking refers to the ability of one to relate to others and perceive their thoughts or feelings or to see something from another’s point of view. What Dr. Day and his colleagues found was that the ability to perspective-take did act as an inhibitor of angry or aggressive behavior.  However, Dr. Day claims, “there was no evidence to suggest that the relationship was any stronger for violent offenders than for students.” He advises, “it would be wrong to assume that violent offenders lack the ability to empathize, rather that careful assessment of the situations and circumstances when they choose to… is important.”

With an increasing abundance of exposure to criminal behavior—both fictional and non-fictional—particularly through media, it is easy to make assumptions about the perpetrators involved and deny any similarities that they may have to you; no one wants to believe that they could actually share similar characteristics with a violent offender, especially in terms of what often makes a criminal violent: his or her anger. Nonetheless, Dr. Day proposes, “this study shows that in many ways violent offenders may be more similar to other people than the stereotype suggests, especially in relation to their ability to empathize and the types of thing that makes them angry. However, it is likely that once aroused they have much less ability to regulate both their emotion and their behavior.” This is an important piece of information when considering different types of treatment or rehabilitation strategies for violent offenders as well as when considering the stereotypes we place on such individuals. It is not necessarily their ability—or lack-there-of—to empathize that must be contemplated; rather, as Dr. Day puts it, “there is a need to understand how the relationship between anger and empathy works for each individual.”

By Lauren Vieaux
Lauren is a junior Psychology and Human Development major with a minor in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay.  She plans on attending graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.

Observing anger: Does it influence one’s ability to work?

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Take a minute and recall a time when you saw a customer being cruel towards one of your colleagues.  It doesn’t take long to recall that moment does it?  Did you ever think about how that observation affected your ability to work?  Current research has looked at how observing other people’s anger affects one’s own ability to complete complex and creative problems.  Specifically Dr. Ella Miron-Spektor and her team completed a study where they analyzed people’s ability to do complex problems that involved routine actions verses their ability to complete more creative problem solving that did not involve a routine solution.  So, as an employee observing someone else’s anger, do you think you would be able to complete a new task or an old task that was familiar to you?

Miron-Spektor and her team decided to do this study because “most research on anger examined the effect of experienced anger (what happens to me when I feel angry). In this research we wanted to understand the effects of observing others’ anger (what happens to me when I observe anger expressions of others).”  According to Miron-Spektor and her research team, displays of anger can have both positive and negative effects on people.  For example, they found that those who are working on redundant tasks and who observe anger are more likely to work harder and actually increase their work effort, whereas those working to solve more creative problems were negatively affected by observing anger.  In fact, those creative problems were unlikely to be completed at all when the individual observed anger. 

Miron-Spektor and her team were not only interested in people observing anger, but they were also interested in learning the influence of sarcasm on people’s work abilities.  Now, take a minute and think back to when you were at work and you overheard a customer’s sarcastic remark to one of your colleagues.  Perhaps the customer said ” wow, what great service this is” or something similar.  How do you think that influenced your ability to work?  Do you see this type of anger to be more positive or negative?  In Miron-Spektor’s study, they found that people view sarcasm as a more positive way to express anger.  Thus, observing sarcasm actually has been shown to improve one’s ability to solve creative problems. 

Miron-Spektor believes that her “research shows that the effects of anger are much broader than originally thought. People who merely hear someone displaying anger without being the actual target are shown by our analyses to be influenced by the anger displays.”  Miron-Spektor’s research has shown that people who observe anger are more likely to improve on their work when their work is a routine task versus a creative task.  Miron-Spektor also says “the popular conception is limited because anger seems to get people going only in simple, well-known, and uncreative routes.  However, with some irony and humor, an anger-evoking situation can improve performance even if the problem at hand is complex.”

Now, think about a time when you were a customer and you were angry with the store workers, did you yell at them?  If so, the next time you are an angry customer remember that the way you express your anger does in fact influence the employees work ability.  Perhaps you will decide not to yell at or insult someone and instead bring some humor into the conversation.    

By Rebecca Arrowood
Rebecca is a senior Psychology major and Human Development minor at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay.  She plans on attending graduate school to earn a Masters in Counseling Psychology next fall.

The Complicated Relationship Between Anger, Aggression, and Video Game Violence

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Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, and Resident Evil. We have all seen them on store shelves, and we may possibly even be proud owners of these video games. But what are these violent video games really doing to us?  Many believe, and previous research has shown, that violent video games lead to an increase in aggressive thoughts. However, according to a recent study published in Aggressive Behavior, violent video games likely have different effects on people depending on their tendency to feel anger in the first place.

In the study, participants completed an anger measure and then were randomly assigned to play either a violent or a nonviolent video game. The study found that violent and nonviolent video game content can produce different effects depending on the individual’s propensity for feeling anger- what researchers call “trait anger.” According to the lead researcher, Christopher Engelhardt, “trait anger was associated with more aggressive responding following exposure to violent games, whereas trait anger tended to be associated with less aggressive responding following exposure to nonviolent games.” Among individuals high in trait anger, participants who were assigned to play a violent video game showed more aggressive behavior than the participants who were assigned to play a nonviolent video game.

Trait anger shows to be an important variable in understanding how individuals will react to the content in both violent and nonviolent video games. Interestingly, individuals high in trait anger behaved less aggressively after playing a nonviolent video game. According to Engelhardt, “this finding is consistent with other data showing that exposure to nonviolent games can activate prosocial thoughts and less aggressiveness” and “exposure to nonviolent games may be one mechanism by which angry individuals can reduce aggressive thoughts and/or behavior.” So, if you feel the urge to play a video game, try a nice game of NCAA basketball instead of picking up Call of Duty.

By Elise Rittenhouse
Elise is  a senior Psychology major with a minor in Human Development at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay.  She plans on attending graduate school to earn a PhD in Clinical Psychology next fall.