What causes someone to become violent?

Research has been inconclusive regarding playing violent video games as a predictor of future violence. For the most part, the research (and there’s a lot) is negative, meaning there isn’t a strong link.

Why do violent video games not lead to violence? Because one of the basic principles of how we learn is “neurons that fire together, wire together” and playing a video game doesn’t activate parts of the brain that are associated with acting out violently. It’s mostly pleasure circuits, visual spatial perception, coordination, critical thinking, and social parts of the brain (if playing with others).

On the other hand, being spanked as a child not only doesn’t work to change negative behavior in children, it is linked to future violence. You are more likely to spank your own kid if you were spanked. You are more likely to act physically aggressively if you were spanked. You are more likely to be a domestic abuser if you were spanked. Why? Because of the same mechanism of learning — “neurons that wire together, fire together.”

Being a recipient of physical punishment (abuse or “normal spanking”) from a parent or caregiver activates parts of the brain that experience both physical and emotional suffering —physical pain, helplessness, shame, anger, isolation, confusion, fear. Intentionally, on the part of the parent or caregiver, the purpose of the punishment is made explicit – “You deserve this. You are bad. I am teaching you a lesson.”

Children are taught indirectly, but deliberately, that causing suffering is a way to teach others a lesson.

So is it surprising that these implicit memories from childhood of being spanked or worse (really early childhood if you are following Christian parenting books like Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp) form the basis of future violent behavior, specifically when they themselves are thinking: “That person deserves to suffer. That person is bad. That person needs to learn a lesson” and you were modeled physical violence as the solution to this?

And I know what you are thinking, which is why I’m writing this. Does this relate to gun violence? Yes. Yes it does.

I’ve seen way too many stories in the past few years saying that a more robust mental health system would have or could have caught these shooters. I was never trained as a Psychiatrist to screen for that. That solution is a fantasy. The need for better mental health systems is real, but the idea that mental illness and gun violence are causal is a dangerous and distracting falsehood.

Less guns. Absolutely.

But also no more corporal punishment. No more spanking. No more toxic masculinity. No more trivializing emotions.

More relationship focused and developmentally attuned. More Social Emotional Learning. More friendships. More mental healthiness.

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