The 5 Hidden Reasons Men Become Violent and What We Can Do to Make the World Safer

When we hear about violent crime committed by a man we’re often mystified by what may have caused it.

By Jed Diamond

Each time there is another outbreak of violence we focus our attention on things like gun control, treatment for mental illness, and how video-games, the movies, and the media contribute to the problem.  It’s important that we have a general dialogue about violence, what causes it, and how to prevent it.  But I believe it’s also important to talk about men and violence.  Of course it’s true that women can become violent and can contribute to the general culture of violence, but in many ways violence is a men’s issue.  It probably won’t surprise you to know that more men than women perpetrate violence.  But it may surprise you to know that men are also more likely to be the victims of violence.

Let’s look more deeply at violence.  According to the World Health Organization, there are three types of violence that are all inter-related:

*  Self-directed violence includes suicidal behavior and personal harm such as self-mutilation.

*  Interpersonal violence is divided into two categories:

  1. Family and intimate partner violence—That is, violence largely between family members and intimate partners, usually, though not exclusively, taking place in the home.
  2. Community violence—Violence between individuals who are unrelated, and who may or may not know each other, generally taking place outside the home.

*  Collective violence is the instrumental use of killing by people who identify themselves as members of a group against another group or set of individuals, in order to achieve political, economic or social objectives.  Collective violence takes a number of forms including:  armed conflicts within or between nations, genocide (the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group), terrorism, and organized violent crime.

Clearly men are involved, both as perpetrators and victims of all three of these kinds of violence.  Although violence towards others captures our attention, suicide takes the lives of more people than are killed in all forms of interpersonal violence.    “There are more than one million people who die by suicide each year in the world, which is more people than those who die from war, terrorist attacks and homicides every year. So more people kill themselves than are killed by other people,” says Lanny Berman, Ph.D., president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP).  Further, world-wide, males kill themselves 4 times more often than females and in the U.S. the suicide rate for males is 4 to 18 times higher than it is for females, increasing dramatically with age.

Let’s take a look at the five hidden factors that contribute to male violence.

  1.  The Male Brain is Not Wired for Empathy 

At its core, violence is a failure to empathize.   Empathizing is the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.  Violent men see themselves or others as objects rather than human beings.  As philosopher Martin Buber would say, violent people see the world as I-It rather than I-Thou. Simon Baron-Cohen is one of the world’s experts on violence.  In his book, The Science of Evil:  On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty he says, “When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode.  In such a state we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things.”

Although most men are able to empathize with others and would never kill another human being, it’s more difficult for most men to empathize than it is for women.  Why is that so?  Research shows that our brains are more wired for systemizing than for empathizing.  In his book, The Essential Difference:  The Truth about the Male & Female Brain, Baron-Cohen says, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy.  The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

Louann Brizendine, M.D., author of The Male Brain says that there are two emotional systems in the brain that connect us to people.  Women’s brain structure makes it easier for them to empathize.  The male brain makes it easier to solve problems.  Her team of researchers found that the male-type brain “keeps a firm boundary between emotions of the ‘self’ and the ‘other.’  This prevents men’s thought processes from being infected by other people’s emotions, which strengthens their ability to cognitively and analytically find a solution.”

Have you noticed the frustration many women feel when they share their hurts and pain with a man? He immediately locks into the problem-solving mode before he has taken time to listen closely and empathically to her.  When she talks to a girlfriend, she may get a lot more empathy, but much less problem-solving help.

Antidote for Low Empathy:  All men can learn to become more empathic.  Put yourself in the place of the other person.  Listen for feelings first.   Resist your initial desire to problem solve.

  1. Males Have Higher Levels of Testosterone 

Theresa Crenshaw, M.D. is one of the world’s leading experts on how hormones influence our behavior.  “Testosterone is a steroid hormone manufactured in the testicles, ovaries, and adrenals,” she says. “It is a predominantly male sex hormone that women have too, although in much smaller amounts.  In fact, after pubertymen have about 8 to 10 times more of it than women.”

She offers a colorful description of the personality of testosterone:  “Testosterone is the young Marlon Brando—sexual, sensual, alluring, dark, with a dangerous undertone.  Testosterone is responsible for our aggressive sex drive.  It is also our ‘warmone,’ triggering aggression, competitiveness, and even violence.”

Like most things in life, testosterone levels vary in men (and women).  Our average testosterone level is inherited from our parents, but physical and social conditions produce changes around this average level.  Testosterone levels are related to criminality and violence.  James Dabbs, Ph.D. is one of the world’s experts on testosterone.  In his book Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers:  Testosterone and Behavior, he says, “While there is no direct tie between testosterone and human criminality, there is an indirect tie.  Testosterone leads toward violence, and violence is often criminal.”

Dabbs studied 4,462 men and found that “the overall picture among the high-testosterone men is one of delinquency, substance abuse and a tendency toward excess.” These high-T men, which made up about 10% of the sample, “have more trouble with people like teachers while they are growing up, have more sexual partners, are more likely to have gone AWOL in the service and to have used hard drugs, particularly if they had poor educations and low incomes.” A separate study by Dabbs of young male prison inmates found that high testosterone levels were associated with more violent crimes, parole board decisions against release, and more prison rule violations. Even in women, Dabbs found, high testosterone levels were related to crimes of unprovoked violence, increased numbers of prior charges, and decisions against parole.

Antidote for High Testosterone:   Strengthen family ties and encourage fathers to stay involved with their children.  Delinquent behavior is more common among children raised with absent fathers.  Dabbs wife Mary, a fellow researcher, reflected on their years studying testosterone:  “It’s ‘guystuff,’ and guystuff seems to be about building stuff, fixing stuff, and blowing stuff up.”  She concluded that it’s the job of parents to encourage the building and fixing, and discourage the blowing up.

  1.  Males Generate Lower Levels of Oxytocin

Research scientist Paul Zak, Ph.D. feels that the hormone oxytocin may be the key to much that is good in relationships.  In his book, The Moral Molecule:  The Source of Love and Prosperity he says, “Beginning in 2001, my colleagues and I conducted a number of experiments showing that when someone’s level of oxytocin goes up, he or she responds more generously and caringly, even with complete strangers.”  

He found that not only did oxytocin make people friendlier, more empathic, and more trusting, but it also stimulated the release of other hormones that improved the quality of their relationships.  “When a positive social stimulus prompts the release of oxytocin, the Moral Molecule in turn triggers the release of two other feel-good neurotransmitters:  dopamine and serotonin.  Serotonin reduces anxiety and has a positive effect on mood.  Dopamine is associated with goal-directed behaviors, drive, and reinforcement learning.  It motivates creatures to seek things that are rewarding and it makes it feel good to keep doing those things.”

Oxytocin generates the empathy that drives moral behavior, which inspires trust, which causes the release of more oxytocin, which creates more empathy.  “This is the behavioral feedback loop,” says Zak, “we call the virtuous cycle.”  But oxytocin doesn’t seem to be an equal opportunity hormone.  It evolved in women to help with child birth, breastfeeding and bonding and is not as available in men as it is in women.

Testosterone also blocks the effect of oxytocin, and as we know, guys have much higher levels of testosterone.  Shelley Taylor, Ph.D, is a world-renowned expert on stress and health.  In her book The Tending Instinct, she suggests that the difference in oxytocin release in men and women accounts for women’s greater willingness to reach out for others when they are under stress (what she calls “tending and befriending”) rather than the male reaction of “fight or flight.”

Antidote for Low Oxytocin:   Fortunately oxytocin can be raised relatively easily.  Two of the best I know are to get a good massage regularly (I have been getting a massage every other week for the last ten years) and being willing to trust others instead of being defensive and fearful.   Zack found that those who got a massage had a 9% increase in their oxytocin levels.  But when people got a massage and also increased their bonds of trust, their oxytocin levels rose 243%.

  1.  Males Have Fewer Friends Than Females 

I conduct workshops on health and well-being for men and women all over the world.  I’ll often ask the women in the audience, “How many of you have three or more close friends that you confide in and you reach out to in time of need?”  Most all the women raise their hands.  When I poll the men in the audience, almost no men raise their hands.  At most men will have one close friend.  Often it’s their spouse.  If problems arise in the relationship, most men are left completely on their own.

The great friendships recorded in history have been between men, and friendships among men have often been romanticized and idealized. Men’s friendships have typically been described in terms of bravery and physical sacrifice in providing assistance to others. But rarely do these historical accounts celebrate interpersonal relationships characterized by closeness and compassion for other men.  Gender researcher R.R. Bell says, “This has been so because masculine values have made those kinds of feelings inappropriate and highly suspect–they were unmanly.”

Despite the romantic view of the male friendship, researchers have found that men have significantly fewer friends than women, especially close friendships or best friends.  Instead men often have “activity friends” such as a weekly tennis partner or drinking buddy.  The friendship is often based on the exchange of favors rather than emotional support.  Men often are able to advance their careers with these kinds of friendships, but they fall short of what most of us need.  As a result many men feel isolated and angry.

Herb Goldberg, Ph.D. expressed the dilemma many men face in his book The Hazards of Being Male:  Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege:  “The male has paid a heavy price for his masculine ‘privilege’ and power.  He is out of touch with his emotions and his body.  He is playing by the rules of the male game plan and with lemming-like purpose he is destroying himself—emotionally, psychologically and physically.”

Men are often cut off from the healing value of friendship and the problem gets worse as we age.  Men tend to become more isolated as we age.   Studies show that far more men than women had trouble trusting and reaching out for help from others, including health care professionals.  A postmortem report on a 60-year-old man who had committed suicide said:  “He did not have friends…He did not feel comfortable with other men…he did not trust doctors and would not seek help even though he was aware that  he needed help.”

Cut off from others and experiencing increasing inner pain, men often become depressed.  In the research I did for my book, The Irritable Male Syndrome:  Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Aggression and Depression, I found that men have much higher suicide rates than women do and that suicide rates increase dramatically as men age.  Men between the ages of 65 and 85 killed themselves almost 10 times more frequently than did women of the same age.  Further, unlike women, men often “act out” their depression and become more aggressive and sometimes violent.  The comedian Elayne Boosler captured these male/female differences when she observed, “When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. It’s a whole different way of thinking.”

Antidote for Lack of Friends:   It might seem obvious that men need to have more close friends.  But it isn’t easy developing new friendships, particularly as we get older.  But it may be the most important thing we can do.  I joined a men’s group in my late 30s after my first wife and I divorced.  My group has been meeting now for more than 33 years.  I started another men’s group recently.  I see it as the best form of health and life insurance.

  1.  Men React More Violently to Shame Than Women.

We’ve all experienced shame in our lives.  We feel small and vulnerable.  We want to disappear.  “Shame,” says author Merle Fossum, “is feeling alone in the pit of unworthiness.”  He describes shame as being much more deeply rooted than most people believe.  “Shame is not just a low reading on the thermometer of self-esteem.  Shame is something like cancer—it grows on its own momentum.”

Both shame and guilt are ways in which people experience feeling bad.  Yet the two are quite different.  Guilt involves feeling bad about what we do or fail to do.  Shame is feeling bad about who we are, about our very being.  I’ve found that men and women often experience shame differently.  Women are more ashamed of their bodies, while men are more ashamed of their feelings or how they are perceived by others.  Also, women are generally more aware of their feelings of shame.  Men deny their experience of shame and hide it from themselves and others.

Most of us smile when we remember the nursery rhyme describing the essence of masculine and feminine.  “Little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice.  Little boys are made of snips of snails and puppy-dogs tails.”  But think what that tells us about who we are.  I think most males grow up feeling that there is something inherently bad about us and that there is something inherently good about females.  It may help account for men who act superior and put women down.  We hunger to feel good inside, but afraid we can never be anything but damaged goods.  We want to be loved and respected for who we are, but feel our only hope is to achieve outward success in the world.  But no matter how much we achieve, we never feel completely worthy.

James Gilligan, M.D. is the former director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School.  He has spent his professional career working with violent men and his books, Violence:  Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, Preventing Violence:  Prospects for Tomorrow, and Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, help us better understand the relationship between men, shame, and violence.

When we hear about some particularly violent crime committed by a man, we are often mystified by what may have caused it.  After working with thousands of violent men, Gilligan was able to get to the core cause.  “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo that ‘loss of face’—no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death.”

Men crave respect and can become violent when they feel put down.  “The prison inmates I work with have told me repeatedly, when I asked them why they had assaulted someone,” says Gilligan, “that it was because ‘he disrespected me.’  The word ‘disrespect’ is so central in the vocabulary, moral value system, and psychodynamics of these chronically violent men that they have abbreviated it into the slang term, ‘he dissed me.’”

Antidote for Shame:   I’ve found that one of the first steps we can take in addressing shame is to accept it ourselves rather than denying it.  Shame thrives in darkness and decreases when we shine the light of awareness on it.  Gilligan says that violent men (and all men to some degree) have a carefully guarded secret about shame, that most would literally rather die than reveal.  “The secret is that they feel ashamed—deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed, over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them, so they are ashamed even to reveal what shames them.”  We then need to be able to talk about our feelings of shame with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist.  Also, we can all notice ways in which men are disrespected in society—jokes, media portrayals, cutting remarks and put-downs.

In one survey, men and women were asked what they were afraid most afraid of. Women responded that they were most afraid of being raped and murdered.  Men responded that they were most afraid of being laughed at.  We now know that these two fears are related.  If we are going to reduce violence, we need to increase our respect for every human being on the planet and that starts with respecting those closest to us:  Our mates, our children, and ourselves.

You can also follow the author on Twitter for an ongoing conversation: @MenAliveNow

 

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