Violent Offenders Have Common Emotional Characteristics
Most people would acknowledge a link between negative emotion and the possibility of violence. From bar fights to domestic abuse, some arguments have the potential to turn physical when one of the parties loses his or her temper. But are there clinical disorders that more directly tie emotion to violence? Research has some answers.
Emotional Show and Tell
Some people have mastered the art of keeping their emotions in check.
Handling conversation and conflict with poker faces, they never reveal how they are really feeling. Interacting with someone who has this type of tight reign on his or her emotions can be a blessing and a curse, depending on the setting.
Sure, emotional detachment might be a good quality to have in customer service or other public settings where one has to remain calm under all circumstances.
On the other hand, close relationships usually benefit from both partners being emotionally expressive and available. It's one thing to profess emotion verbally, but if the mannerisms do not match the message, counterintuition can create skepticism, and distrust.
But when it comes to dangerous people, we want to know what types of emotional red flags might alert us to potential danger. Thankfully, research has explored that issue.
Violence and Emotion
Violence may be tied to emotion, or more specifically, emotional dysregulation. Carlo Garofalo et al. (in 2018) provided evidence of a positive link between psychopathy and emotion dysregulation (ED) among male offenders who committed offenses involving violence. They found that ED encompasses broad difficulties that span emotion regulation domains, differentiated in terms of degree rather than in kind, that are positively related to psychopathic traits in violent offenders. Their research was fueled by the recognition that ED is a central feature of psychopathy, and as such, understanding it better is essential, because ED may be one of the links between psychopathy and aggressive behavior.
For purposes of their study, they adopted the definition of emotion dysregulation establish by prior research as "the impairment in one or more of the following domains: awareness, understanding, and acceptance of emotional responses; ability to engage in goal-directed behavior when upset; ability to refrain from impulsive behavior when upset; and ability to engage in effective emotion regulation strategies."
They note that such impairments are linked to psychopathology.
They examined four features of psychopathy: affective (callousness, for example), interpersonal (e.g., manipulation), lifestyle (features such as impulsivity), and antisocial (poor behavioral control). They selected these four domains because in combination they constitute psychopathy as a pathological syndrome operationalized in the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R; Hare, 2003) and derivative tests.
Emotion Disregulation and Psychopathy
Their study was conducted using data obtained from 268 male violent offenders incarcerated in multiple Italian prisons. Most of the inmates were Italian or from other European countries. The inmates were convicted of crimes involving the application of physical interpersonal violence such as murder, serious assault, aggravated robbery, sexual offenses and even a pattern of minor physical assaults. They all voluntarily agreed to participate in the study, without compensation.
Study results found that the men with the highest level of ED also manifested the highest level of affective psychopathic features. The association between psychopathic traits and emotion dysregulation was not explained by the level of psychological distress. Of the four psychopathy factors, lifestyle and affective factors were most strongly associated with a higher degree of ED.
They note that higher levels of psychopathic traits were linked with poor behavioral control under emotional arousal, poor distress tolerance, poor attention and awareness for emotions, poor emotional clarity, and limited strategies for emotion regulation.
Consequently, the authors note that their findings suggest that offenders exhibiting psychopathy may benefit from interventions that target "the awareness, understanding, and management of emotional experiences." They also note that improving the regulation of emotion in these domains may assist in reducing psychopathy-related violent re-offense.
Obviously, women can be dangerous as well, and psychopathy is not gender-specific.
It's nonetheless helpful to learn about some of the links between emotional issues and potentially violent tendencies.
Emotional Red Flags as Risk Factors
Risk factors are exactly that. Factors to consider in combination with other observations and evidence. Obviously, many people suffer from ED-related conditions who would never hurt a fly. That is why threat assessment encompasses an analysis of a variety of factors related to potential risk.
Nonetheless, disregarding emotional cues, especially those that are linked with interpersonal difficulties, deprives us of necessary information to incorporate within an assessment of potential dangerousness. And because we cannot detect emotional cues when we have our noses buried in our devices, let´s keep them in our pockets or purses, especially when we are in public.
Situational awareness is not about paranoia, but preparedness. Knowing what types of emotional states are potentially linked to violence is an important component to consider, regardless of the setting.
This column was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 4,000 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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