Denver – When it came to deciding the cause for the high level of violence in the United States, delegates to the American Psychological Association (APA) convention here had a wide variety of options from which to choose.
Symposia and workshops explored the history of violence, the role of media in disseminating information about mass killings and even the choices of food to eat. Convention goers also took a look at research on why police are more likely to shoot at black suspects than white ones and how a leading peace activist sees dark days ahead if something isn’t done about global warming.
To Frank L. Summers, Ph.D., of Northwestern University, today’s violence is simply a matter of living in a culture that has glorified acts of violence dating back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which ushered in an era of manifest destiny and close to two centuries of American exceptionalism that excused killing of Native Americans by settlers and soldiers on their way west.
“Americans have a superior image of themselves,” Summers said in a workshop on “Understanding Acts of Mass Violence.” He said the U.S. military became and continues to be the symbol of American exceptionalism and that even the national anthem glorifies the killing during the War of 1812.
Children, he said, still play cavalry versus Native Americans in which the latter always lose, just like in the B westerns. The Grand Theft Auto series of videos have resulted in $2.5 billion in sales and has led to the reality that there is no difference between reality and what is seen on television screens. Theater audiences applauding when Harrison Ford struck a peaceful Amish pastor in the film “Witness” was another example Summers used to show the level of violence that is accepted in the United States.
Diane Gartland, Psy.D., an independent practitioner in Ann Arbor, Mich., said child abuse and maltreatment are the most important cause of violence and the biggest health care crises of all time.
Two Western New Mexico University researchers blame the media and their 24-hour news cycles for the increase in violence during the past several years. They believe that people who commit mass shootings in America share three traits, rampant depression, social isolation and pathological narcissism, all of which is exacerbated by too much media attention.
Jennifer B. Johnston, Ph.D., and Andrew Joy, a student at the university, reviewed data on mass shootings by media outlets, the FBI, advocacy organizations and scholarly articles to conclude that “media contagion” is largely responsible for the increase in deadly outbursts.
The researchers said the prevalence of mass shootings has risen in relation to the mass media coverage of them and the proliferation of social media sites that tend to glorify the shooters and downplay the victims. They believe that if the media and social media enthusiasts made a pact to no longer share, reproduce or re-tweet the names, faces and history of killers, the county could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in one to two years.
In another workshop, Rishtee K. Batra, Ph.D., and Tanuka Ghoshal, Ph.D., of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, India, said their research showed that consuming hot, spicy food common in their country causes “alpha male” behavior. The hotter the food, the more aggressive and risk-taking men become.
Spicy food, they said, increases testosterone levels, which is one reason penal institutions serve bland food to prison inmates.
In a workshop on “What Psychologists Need to Know About Violence,” Michael Karson, Ph.D., of the University of Denver and Heather Morris, Psy.D., of the United States Air Force Academy, said that most of the shooters in mass killings have left a long trail of red flags that would have alerted most psychologists if they had been in therapy.
Most of the shooters were paranoid, blaming others for what they see as lifetimes of failures, the two said. One of the most prevalent features of paranoia is an overwhelming sense of disappointment they feel about their lives, they added. Most such clients blame injustice upon injustice for justification of their violent acts.
Although it takes years for most mass killers to take their final vengeance against the world they have learned to blame and hate, therapists should not shy away from confronting those that clearly demonstrate paranoid thoughts. Even though therapists may be viewed by the paranoid as just the latest threat to their happiness, psychologist should not be afraid to confront them when necessary. Invite the clients to discuss their feelings of disappointment and don’t be shy about saying “your words are scaring me,” they said.
In a session looking at police bias, Joshua Correll, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado, who has studied and researched for 16 years why police are more likely to shoot black people than white people, said stereotyping both races was responsible for many of the fatal shootings of African-American men. Black men are seen as dangerous, whether armed or not, while white people are seen as safer even if they are armed.
Proper training can produce some police officers who are more discerning in determining when to control their biases, but not all police are able to overcome a lifetime of prejudices and will continue to defy learning how to control their actions, Correll said. However, he said programs such as Anti-bias Training, which focuses on violence in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, might create more problems than it solves, and critics have said the training is not relative to modern day biases against black people.
During a “Violence Summit,” hosted by Frank Farley, Ph.D., Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist and leading public intellectual on peace, conflict and politics, expressed his disappointment that the presidential campaigns have ignored discussing global warming, which he sees as a leading threat to mankind.
“If you think we have a problem with refugees now, wait until rising sea levels drive millions from their homes because of global warming. Yet, no one is talking about it. It’s as if it doesn’t exist,” he said.
Chomsky said scientists this year moved the Doomsday Clock ahead by three minutes to three minutes to midnight, largely in response to the lack of action taken by world leaders and nations to halt the effects of global warming.