Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Roots of Male Violence

My colleague, Jed Diamond, an expert on male psychology and male health, wrote a very timely article, "The 5 Hidden Reasons Men Become Violent and What We Can Do About It to Make the World Safer." In the wake of the Ferguson situation, this subject is particularly relevant.

While violence is perpetrated by both men and women, and clearly both men and woman are impacted by violence (and contribute to a culture of violence), more men perpetrate violence and are the victims of violence than women.

Jed defines violence using the World Health Organization's definition:

There are three kinds of violence, all inter-related:

1. Self-directed violence (including suicidal behavior and self-harm)

2. Interpersonal violence involving family and/or an intimate partner

3. Interpersonal violence involving the larger community (individuals involved may be unrelated)

Here are five hidden factors that Jed cites as contributors to male violence:

1. The Male Brain is Not Wired For Empathy

Jed writes, "At its core, violence is a failure to empathize." When we don't empathize it is easier to "other" another human being, turning them into an object, separate from us, rather than someone we are inherently and inseparably interconnected with. Jed cites Simon Baron-Cohen, an expert on violence saying, "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."

While most men have a capacity to empathize with others, because of the way men's brains are wired, it is much more difficult to do so than for women. Baron-Cohen believes it is because female brains are wired for empathizing and male brains are wired for building systems."

To help men grow their empathic capacity is conscious work. Placing oneself in the shoes of another person, listening for feelings and resisting an innate desire to problem solve are all parts of this work.

2. Males Have Higher Levels of Testosterone

Jed cites Dr Theresa Crenshaw, a leading expert on how hormones influence behavior: testosterone is a predominantly male hormone that women also have in smaller amounts. After puberty, men have 8 to 10 times as much as women do. Not only is testosterone responsible for men's aggressive sex drive, but also what she calls men's "'warmone,' triggering anger, competitiveness and even violence."

Jed references James Dobbs, PhD, who notes an indirect relationship between high testosterone levels and criminality. Dobbs studied young male prison inmates and found that those inmates with higher testosterone levels were often associated with more violent crimes and more prison rule violations.

To counteract the potential for violence, Dobbs and his wife Mary underscored the importance of keeping fathers involved with their children. Children raised with absent fathers are more likely to have delinquent behavior. Fathers can teach their sons that while "guystuff seems to be about building stuff, fixing stuff and blowing up stuff," it is better to focus on the building and fixing.

3. Males Generate Lower Levels of Oxytocin

Oxytocin, often known as "the bonding hormone," is associated with much of the good in relationships. Higher oxytocin can lead someone to act more generously and more daringly, including with strangers. Jed cites the work of researcher Paul Zak, PhD, who noted that oxytocin makes "people friendlier, more empathetic and more trusting," and that empathy drives moral behavior.

Not only do men tend to have lower oxytocin levels than women, but even more so, testosterone blocks the effect of oxytocin. Jed cites the work of Shelley Taylor, PhD, who suggests the difference in oxytocin release between men and women "accounts for women's greater willingness to reach out for others when they are under stress ('tending and befriending') rather than the male reaction of 'fight or flight.'

If men are going to increase their oxytocin levels, and therefore, their capacity for empathy, they need to engage in oxytocin generating activities, like getting a massage, practicing yoga, and working to increase their bonds of trust.

4. Men Have Fewer Friends Than Women

Jed cites his own personal experience leading workshops, where it is common for women to have 3 or 4 close friends, and very uncommon for the same to be true with men. If men have any close friends, it is usually one close friend, often their spouse. And if there are problems in that relationship, men do not have a network of close friends to turn to for support.

Men are more likely to bond over activities not heartfelt shadings about their lives, struggles and triumphs. Jed cites the work of Herb Goldberg, PhD, noting that men are often out of touch with their emotions and their bodies. By "playing by the rules of the male game plan, with lemming-like purpose," men destroy themselves.

When they are isolated, men often become depressed. When they experience inner pain without proper emotional support, "men often 'act out' their depression and become more aggressive or even physically violent." Helping men learn to have close emotional friendships is no easy task. But it is important to change the dynamics of how men behave in relationships.

5. Men React More Violently to Shame Than Women

Jed defines shame with the words of author Merle Fossum: "feeling alone in the pit of unworthiness." And Fossman believes shame "is much more deeply rooted than most people often believe."

"Shame is feeling bad about who we are, about our very being." And it grows like a cancer. Jed notes the work of John Gilligan. "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.' Jed concludes, "Men crave respect and can become violent when they feel put down."

So, to help reduce violence in men, finding ways to build respect and trust are essential. Only then can men risk sharing their innermost feelings. And without sharing feelings of shame, they will continue to incubate, grow and often drive behavior in ways that impact self and others adversely.

Helping men accept their pain, their difficult feelings, their deeper feelings and then share them with loving others is important to reduce the tendency towards violence--to self and others.

For the complete article, visit Jed Diamond's website,

1 comment:

  1. While Diamond's insights are relevant, male violence is NOT mostly a matter of individual psychology (and physiology). Male violence is an essential tool for maintaining our social system in which men have power and privilege over women and some men have power and privilege over other men. To talk about violence without talking about structural sexism would be like looking in the individual psyche and hormones for why someone might do a cross-burning without mentioning the larger context of racism. If you want a less violent society, why is there not a single mention of militarism and war, also a core institution for defining masculinity and maintaining our world's social order, in this article or on Diamond's website? It's OK for Diamond to try to help individual men who want to be "nicer" (I have worked with men in the domestic violence field too) but sadly this will not make more than a tiny dent in our world's overall level of violence unless structural factors are also addressed.