How Science Can Reduce Violence

November 15, 2015

This week we’ve seen another spate of terrorist attacks on everyday people, starting in Beirut and ending in Paris. World leaders are reacting to the incidents with emotion, and talk is of fighting back, bombing, declaring war. However, before we set off on a path of mutual assured destruction, could science contribute to our efforts to understand, and deal with, violence? Absolutely.

Hundreds of studies have been done over the years, based on psychology and neuroscience, looking at ways violent behaviour can be addressed, and significantly reduced, using a simple human trait: empathy.

A fascinating article in The Atlantic discusses the ‘Humane Interrogation Technique‘, which may have been labeled in the 21st century but has its origins in the 18th century, when Napoleon himself declared the absurdity of obtaining valuable information through torture. As he wrote in a 1798 letter, “The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished.”

A study published last year by Australian researcher Jane Goodman-Delahunty interviewed 34 interrogators from several countries and asked what strategies they had used to obtain information. The most effective technique was immediately clear: disclosure was 14 times more likely to occur when a rapport-building approach was used. As one U.S. Army interrogator reported, his shared love of the TV show ‘’24” was the connection he made with his prisoner, which ultimately led to the disclosure of new and useful information.

Science has also confirmed social connection and attachment as crucial for curtailing violent behaviour. The British Journal of Forensic Practice published a study in 1999 that took place in a maximum security prison. Highly violent individuals were able to make real changes through group therapy that emphasized the benefits of attachment to others.

In San Francisco, a program was introduced into the prison system where victims of violence spoke to prisoners about their experience. This intervention helped reduce criminal recidivism by 80%.

Perhaps most importantly, in the aftermath of this month’s terrorist attacks, studies have shown that reacting to violence with violence is counterproductive. The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published an article in 2006 that led the author James Gilligan to declare that harsh punishments and unsympathetic treatment turned prisons into “graduate schools for crime”. His ‘Resolve to Stop the Violence Project’ demonstrated that teaching prisoners prosocial skills led to a precipitous drop in dormitory violence between inmates.

Science has given us many possible solutions to the problem of violence. With continued research such as this, perhaps the data will lead to a critical mass of evidence that can be used to improve our ability to live humanely in this world.

Our thoughts are with all those affected by the horrific violence this week.