A new study has found that people who experience bullying in late adolescence and early adulthood are significantly more likely to have violent daydreams or fantasies that involve hurting even killing people.
The study, led by University of Cambridge criminology professor Manuel Eisner, appeared on April 27 in the journal Aggressive Behavior.
Tracking violent thoughts
Eisner and his team tracked the self-reported thoughts and experiences of 1,465 young people from schools across the Swiss city of Zurich. They were studied at the ages of 15, 17, and 20.
The researchers recorded whether the participants had had violent thoughts in the past 30 days, and what types (if any) of bullying or aggression they had experienced over the past 12 months. They define bullying as “interpersonal, intentional harm‐doing.”
Specifically, the team asked about the subjects’ experiences of 23 forms of victimization. These included taunts, physical attacks, and sexual harassment by peers. The subjects also reported their experience of “aggressive parenting” (for example yelling and slapping), as well as dating violence (e.g. being pressured into sex).
Worse among those who experience multiple types of bullying
Athough most teenagers and young adults indicated that they had been victimised in at least one way, those who experienced a wide range of such mistreatment had a much higher likelihood of fantasizing about about killing, attacking, or humiliating others.
The researchers used questionnaires to categorize these imagined acts of violence. For example, they classified the responses in terms of their level of aggression (humiliation, beatings, murder), and their imagined targets (strangers or acquaintances).
About 97% of the most-bullied boys have violent fantasies
Boys were more prone to violent thinking in general. Nonetheless, the effect of multiple victimisations on violent fantasies was very similar in both sexes.
Among 17-year-old boys who had not been victimised in the preceding year, the probability of violent fantasies in the last month was 56%. But among those who indicated they’d experienced five forms of victimisation, 85% indicated having had violent fantasies in the past month. For those who had experienced ten such forms of victimization, the figure was 97%. With every additional type of mistreatment, the probability of violent fantasies increased by about 8%.
Among girls of the same age, those who indicated no victimisation experience had a violent fantasy probability of 23%. That figure increased to 59% in girls who listed five types of mistreatment. It rose to 73% in those who said they had suffered ten forms.
Fantasies as a way of preparing for future violence
“One way to think about fantasies is as our brain rehearsing future scenarios,” said Manuel Eisner. “The increased violent fantasies among those who experience bullying or mistreatment may be a psychological mechanism to help prepare them for violence to come,” he said.
“These fantasies of hitting back at others may have roots deep in human history, from a time when societies were much more violent, and retribution – or the threat of it – was an important form of protection,” he said.
According to Eisner, the research hints at the extent of violent ideation in societies that are as ostensibly peaceful as Switzerland.
Socioeconomic status did not play a role
The researchers controlled for a number of factors, but found that most had little if any effect on the results. For example, they found that socio-economic status played little role in violent fantasy rates. Likewise, “adverse life events” such as financial troubles or parental separation also had no significant impact.
The study also found that thoughts of killing others are triggered “by experiences of interpersonal harm-doing — attacks on our personal identity — rather than noxious stimuli more generally,” said Eisner. “It’s the difference between conditions that make people angry and upset, and those that make people vengeful.”
By following most of the teenagers to the cusp of adulthood, researchers could track patterns over several years. Overall rates of the most extreme thoughts decreased by the age of 20. By that point, only 14% of young men and 5.5% of women had thought about killing someone they know in the past month.
However, the effects of victimisation on violent fantasies did not lessen as they grew up, suggesting the intensity of this psychological mechanism may not fade.
Links to actual violent behavior not investigated, but possible
The study also found a minor correlation between consumption of violent media and violent thoughts, but the effects were small. A more significant predictor was the a belief that violence can be justified, which contributes to what researchers call “trait aggressiveness.”
Some previous research has found that even “indirect aggression” (also known as “meanness”) at a young age can predict meanness later on.
“This study did not examine whether violent ideations caused by victimisation actually lead to violent behaviour. However, a consistent finding across criminology is that victims often become offenders, and vice versa,” said Eisner.
“Fantasies are unrestrained, and the vengeance taken in our minds is often wildly disproportionate to the real-world event which triggered it,” he said.
These findings, the study concludes, “are consistent with the notion that violent ideations are triggered by a retaliation‐linked psychological mechanism that entails playing out other-directed imaginary aggressive scenarios, specifically in response to experiencing intentional harm‐doing by others.”
Future directions: stopping rumination early on
Studying the mechanisms behind violent fantasies may help with targeted interventions that can stop obsessive rumination turning real, particularly if they begin at a young age.
These findings, the authors write, “suggest that victims of violence may be screened for violent ideations, and that interventions should address violent ideations as part of broader cognitive‐behavioral strategies designed to help victims of violence.”
Study: “The association of polyvictimization with violent ideations in late adolescence and early adulthood: A longitudinal study”
Authors: Manuel Eisner, Margit Averdijk, Daniela Kaiser, Aja L. Murray, Amy Nivette, Lilly Shanahan, Jean‐Louis van Gelder, and Denis Ribeaud
Published in: Aggressive Behavior
Publication date: April 27, 2021
Photo: by Morgan Basham on Unsplash
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