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The roots of violence

Ask the expert: Short fuse or a serious problem with violence? Steven Hobfall on how to know the difference.

By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter

September 12, 2012

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The massacres in Aurora, Colo., and at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. The shootings outside the Empire State Building, in which an ex-employee killed his boss. Escalating gang warfare. In recent months, violence seemed to erupt everywhere. To get a better understanding of aggression of all kinds, we called on Stevan Hobfoll, a clinical psychologist and head of the behavioral sciences department at Rush University Medical Center.

Q: Is it difficult to predict violence?

A: Certainly, it can be ... but there's a lot more anger than violence. In general, violent crime has gone down since the late 1960s and '70s (according to the FBI). The reasons range from fewer children born into poor families because of abortion and availability of birth control to the number of police.

Q: What do we know about people who become violent?

A: Fewer people are exposed to violent upbringing, and it usually takes that combination (of experiencing both anger and violence in childhood) to make violence occur. And then there are those who might not be violent, but go through military training, which teaches that violence is the way to solve problems. So, what seems like a coping strategy during military service gets carried over to civilian life.

Q: I'm interested in workplace violence. In New York, the shooter — who had been fired — and the victim were from the same office. Are managers not well-trained to handle layoffs?

A: In these situations, it's not uncommon to have two security people accompany a trusted employee to his desk, load up a box of his belongings and walk him out the door. They take the worst case scenario and treat it like it's the norm. … That's what happens when you have lawyers and security people managing the termination process instead of HR (human resources) people. It looks like an arrest.

Q: So what's a better way?

A: Instead of expecting the worst-case scenario, look at that employee you're dealing with. If it's computer files you're worried about, then turn off access. In best practices, employees get help finding jobs and other assistance. ... But now it looks like feudal times, when a serf was driven from his land by whip.

Q: Are some workplaces more stressful than others?

A: Some years ago, we had the term "go postal" because of the shootings at post offices. We've actually studied these sorting facilities, which are very high stress — and where you were yelled at or written up for falling under expectations. A high number of Vietnam veterans worked at the facilities, many of whom had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). That's a bad combination ... trained to use violence to solve problems and a high-stress situation.

Q: Has the bad economy created more of these conflicts?

A: We know that economic downturns have been linked to domestic violence and alcohol abuse. Workplace violence also seems to go up during an economic downturn. The problem here is that this also may be related to increased political finger-pointing during such times, which makes people feel more hopeless and without solutions.

Q: What's the difference between someone with a short fuse and someone whose behavior has became a serious problem?

A: Most individuals who are violent will act violently. They will get in the person's face — literally, not just with words. Or they will make direct verbal threats. Some give a warning because they don't want to be violent, but others are intent on violence.

At home, lots of lower-level violence is more tit for tat, one pushes the other — and they end up in the ER … and that low-level violence is done equally by men and women. That is very different from domestic violence or domestic terrorism. That is usually a male, who intends violence and will be violent no matter what is done. It has nothing to do with being provoked ... and the first is quite different than the second.

Q: Are there different types of violence?

A: Yes. The first is politically motivated, which is what we saw against the Sikhs or the Fort Hood shootings. The second is a severe psychotic disorder, where the individual is mentally unstable. The third category would be those who want power or revenge. At Columbine, the shooters didn't have a political agenda or appear to be psychotic. They just wanted power. And, of course, there can be an overlap ... so you can be both psychotic and political.

Q: How much does biology play a part in all this?

A: We know testosterone plays a part. Young men are more prone to aggression than older men ... which is why steroids increase the likelihood of violence and why whoever gave, say, the football player steroids should also be culpable. Likewise, when men get older and testosterone decreases, they become less violent.

Q: So, is it a problem if your partner yells at motorists, berates waiters, etc.?

A: If it creates conflict for you, then it's a problem. A lot of marital counseling addresses anger. There are also a lot of good anger management programs out there. ... Psychotherapy with pharmacology can work quite well.

brubin@tribune.com