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The Science of Violence

Everyday Einstein looks at what science tells us concerning violent crime.

By
Lee Falin, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #36

Apparently 1993 was a common year for gun-control studies because of the ongoing debate at that time regarding the upcoming assault weapons ban which was passed in 1994. Studies following that ban carried out by the CDC and the National Research Council found that the 1994 assault weapons ban had no noticeable impact on gun-related crime, including crimes involving multiple victims, which was precisely the type of event this ban was designed to prevent. The study authors noted that this wasn’t surprising, as it was what many scientists had predicted.

Unfortunately, even in countries with extremely strict gun legislation, violent massacres still occur. For example, in China it is illegal for any private citizen to own any type of firearm. Yet since 2010, there have been at least 10 major school massacres there, resulting in the deaths of dozens of children as well as  severe physical and emotional trauma for nearly one hundred others. These terrible events were all carried out without a single firearm.

The take-home message here is that all of the scientific and statistical evidence points to the fact that stricter gun laws will not solve the problem of violent crime, especially the problem of crimes involving multiple victims.

Video Games and Violence

Another area of potential blame that has often been reported by the media is that of violent videogames.

In a 2003 study, researchers studied the behavior of more than 600 hundred 8th and 9th grade students. They found that “adolescents who expose themselves to greater amounts of video game violence were more hostile, reported getting into arguments with teachers more frequently, were more likely to be involved in physical fights, and performed more poorly in school.”

A 2005 study found that exposure to images from violent video games increased activity in the region of the brain associated with violent behavior. Another study found that violent video games played by undergraduate students increased violent behavior, though more so in men than in women.

Finally, a study carried out by researchers at Iowa State University synthesized and analyzed the results of 35 other studies, involving over 3,000 participants. They found that playing violent video games had an effect on aggressive behavior “as strong as the effect of condom use on [th risk of HIV infection.” The study noted that these behavior changes were significant in both male and female, adults and children.

Asperger Syndrome and Violence

Finally the media was quick to report that the killer in the Sandy Hook shootings had Asperger Syndrome, which may have led to his violent behavior. Those with Asperger Syndrome and Autism have long had to deal with not only with their own conditions, but also with the public perception of those conditions.

A 2004 study found that this perception of mental illness has two negative effects. First, the loss of social opportunities can sometimes cause more harm than the symptoms of the illness itself. Second, the stigma associated with being labeled with a particular mental illness can cause some patients to forego or abandon treatment.

It is often mentioned in the media that a tendency toward  “antisocial behavior” is one of the distinguishing factors of Asperger Syndrome. The truth is that even experts aren’t always sure which conditions should be diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome.

However a study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that after evaluating the results of 21 other studies, only 2% of subjects diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome exhibited a history of violent behavior.

Interestingly, a study in 2008 found that while violent video games were known to cause an increase in aggressive behavior, non-violent games, especially games with a social component, are therapeutic for those suffering from mental illness.

Conclusion

Everyone has opinions on these issues; some of them are very strong opinions. However, the scientific evidence is clear. Gun legislation does not stop violent crime, nor does it affect multiple-victim incidents.

Violent video games do lead to an increase in aggressive behavior in males and females, adults and children alike.

People with Asperger Syndrome are not inherently violent, and public perception of mental health issues currently do more harm to some individuals than the illnesses themselves.

Before you write to me to tell me how wrong I am on any or all of these topics, I encourage you to read the studies for yourself. These aren’t my opinions or the well-crafted commentary of some media analyst, blogger, or politician. These are facts; supported by science and statistics, conducted by experts in the respective fields, and published in peer-reviewed journals.

If you liked today’s episode, you can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Hand image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.