Why Is America So Violent? The Answer May Surprise You

Why is America so violent?

It’s a question that has been asked a lot in recent weeks, and the answers that researchers have come up with may surprise you at first. But when you think about them, they make a lot of sense.

A significant correlation has been found between violence and income inequality, as well as a lack of social capital.

Ichiro Kawachi at the Harvard School of Public Health led a study in 1999 that examined the factors that play into American homicides. The study was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine:

If the level of crime is an indicator of the health of society, then the US provides an illustrative case study as one of the most unhealthy of modern industrialized nations …

Violent crimes (homicide, assault, robbery) were consistently associated with relative deprivation (income inequality) and indicators of low social capital. Among property crimes, burglary was also associated with deprivation and low social capital. Areas with high crime rates tend also to exhibit higher mortality rates from all causes, suggesting that crime and population health share the same social origins. Crime is thus a mirror of the quality of the social environment …

The correlations between income inequality and household poverty rates with homicide were, respectively, 0.74 and 0.53 (P < 0.001 for both). Even after adjusting for poverty, income inequality accounted for 52% of the between-state variance in homicide rates.

Writing for Scientific American earlier this year, Eric Michael Johnson said of the study:

The results were unambiguous: when income inequality was higher, so was the rate of homicide. Income inequality alone explained 74% of the variance in murder rates and half of the aggravated assaults. However, social capital had an even stronger association and, by itself, accounted for 82% of homicides and 61% of assaults. Other factors such as unemployment, poverty, or number of high school graduates were only weakly associated and alcohol consumption had no connection to violent crime at all. A World Bank sponsored study subsequently confirmed these results on income inequality concluding that, worldwide, homicide and the unequal distribution of resources are inextricably tied. (see Figure 2). However, the World Bank study didn’t measure social capital. According to Kawachi it is this factor that should be considered primary; when the ties that bind a community together are severed inequality is allowed to run free, and with deadly consequences.

But what about guns? Multiple studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of guns and the number of homicides. The United States is the most heavily armed country in the world with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Doesn’t this over-saturation of American firepower explain our exaggerated homicide rate? Maybe not. In a follow-up study in 2001 Kawachi looked specifically at firearm prevalence and social capital among U.S. states. The results showed that when social capital and community involvement declined, gun ownership increased (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Social Capital and Gun Ownership

Figure 3. Social Capital and Gun Ownership. Between 48 US states, gun ownership increases as community involvement goes down. Reproduced from Hemenway et al. (2001). Click image to enlarge.

Kawachi points out that it is impossible to prove whether one factor caused the other, but the most reasonable interpretation is that people who don’t trust their neighbors are more likely to think guns will provide security. In this way the number of guns and the number of homicides both stem from the same root, suggesting that guns don’t cause murders anymore than cars cause fatal accidents. This was also the conclusion of a policy paper conducted by the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research in 2005 that found no support for the argument that more guns cause more homicides. “The appearance of such an effect in past research,” wrote the authors, “appears to be the product of methodological flaws.” Unfortunately, gun control may not save us after all.

James Gilligan is one of the foremost experts on violence and America’s violent offenders. In interviews, he has talked about how he treated prison inmates as his teachers, giving him insight into what leads a human to commit a violent act.

Gilligan answers some of the questions you may have after reading the above research. Namely, what does income inequality and lack of social cohesion cause in human beings to trigger violence? The answer is shame and humiliation, according to Gilligan.

He recently did an interview with public radio station WBUR in Boston that digs into this subject. It’s an interesting read:

BOSTON — Many questions remain in the wake of the shooting last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Among them: What drives someone to commit such a horrific act of violence?

New York University psychiatry professor Dr. James Gilligan, who has studied violence for decades and used to direct mental health services for the Massachusetts prison system, says most people who murder or harm others feel a tremendous sense of humiliation and shame, as well as a sense that they or numb or dead inside.

“They could identify often the period in their life when they felt they had died. And it was a time when they just felt overwhelmingly shamed and humiliated,” Gilligan said. “Sometimes the straw that broke the camel’s back would be a rejection from a school or a girlfriend or whatever, but some blow to self-esteem. Sometimes just being fired from a job, something that made them feel inadequate, or a failure.”

Just about every person experiences some form of rejection or disappointment in his or her life, but people who commit violent acts have other conditions that make them predisposed towards violence.

“One is if the person feels they lack sufficient non-violent means of restoring their self-esteem, that they’ve tried and tried and they feel they’ve just failed and there’s nothing remaining for them,” Gilligan said.

“They can’t love others or themselves,” he added. “All they can do is go to war against the world that they may feel has humiliated them and try to rescue some last gasp of self-esteem.”

The best way to treat people who have these preconditions and might commit violent acts is to build up their self-esteem, Gilligan says.

The real solution however, Gilligan says, is treating violence as a public health issue or as part of preventive medicine.

“In preventive medicine, we learned 150 years ago that cleaning up the water supply and the sewer system was much more effective in preventing epidemics of cholera and other infectious diseases than all the doctors and medicines and hospitals in the world just dealing with people one individual at a time.

“And I say here too, rather than focusing on primarily, say, trying to identify which individuals are maybe most at risk of becoming violent, the more efficient method of reducing the level of violence in our society would be to look at our environment and change it,” Gilligan said.

It’s no easy task. Gilligan said a first step for him would be to ban assault weapons and large capacity magazines. But he said the bigger picture is to tackle socioeconomic issues.

“We do have epidemics of violence when the unemployment rate increases, when economic inequality increases … And these tend to come down when we either ameliorate the effects of unemployment — for example, unemployment insurance — or find ways to protect people from utter humiliation and loss of status,” he said.

He went even further, saying that society as a whole needed to adopt a perspective “that we will not abandon or neglect or ignore anyone, that we will regard ourselves as responsible for the welfare of everybody.”

“I realize this sounds like pie in the sky … But I think it is possible to create a less aggressive and less violent society,” Gilligan said. “It’s just that it’s a matter of generations. It’s not something that happens overnight.”

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you are familiar with my interest in economic inequality and the many problems with which it correlates, ranging from health problems to education woes. Violence is another item on this long list.

Remember, America is one of the most unequal countries among the developed nations. Only three of the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have higher economic inequality — Chile, Mexico and Turkey.

Unfortunately, the United States is not addressing this issue at all. Economic inequality is growing worse.

For example, I recently wrote about the growing income inequality in South Dakota.

We ignore these economic issues at our own peril. At the end of the day, they are health and public safety issues.

9 thoughts on “Why Is America So Violent? The Answer May Surprise You

  1. Thank you for this article. It reveals what I’ve already suspected a long time ago, i.e. that envirornment based upon inequality and communal distrust breeds violence. I’m not from US (from Poland) and it always amazes how violent your country is – not everyone of course!

    Actually, it’s scary to see that in this day and age people still live in this way.

    But what’s the chance of this system changing? After all the people who can change things have vested interest against doing so, and people who need the change the most are unaware of the truth and uninterested in political activism.

    So sad to see all this greed and waste of life…

  2. Thank you for the kind words. Sadly, I don’t see the kind of change we need happening through normal political channels. They are too entrenched in the status quo. What are the alternatives? I’m hoping the Occupy movement is a step in the right direction, but only time will tell.

  3. Interesting article, I was hoping to see some information on the effects of the constant flow of violence on TV, movies, and video games. it seems to me when young people are subjected to a constant barrage of death and destruction at very least it desensitizes them to it.

  4. I’m not sure if inequality in and of itself is the issue. I heard Russel Peters say that even though people in India are dirt poor, they aren’t angry or violent or envious. If what he says is true, to me this shows at the very least inequality is not the issue. America is a society that values consuming. Also I’ve noticed that a portion of the population is prone to paranoia, are hyper vigilant, and oversensitive to rejection (I’m thinking of people like Alex Jones). Then I also notice that the population is prone to forming niche groups in which they erect some “ism” as their ideal (racism, feminism, anti-Semitism etc.), or else some grievance or weakness/inadequacy that they share in common (various gangs and secret societies, or groups like the NRA). Lastly are the mass shootings which suggest to me at the very least that the individual has a death wish which he projects on to others, but more profoundly, it suggests to me that as a society, America more than ever wants to destroy itself.

    This cocktail comes together in my mind to form a myriad of psychological issues suffered by the general population.

    The obvious one is narcissism; the emptiness suggested by the consumer mind set along with the oversensitivity to rejection (with it’s accompanying narcissistic rage) and the tendency to cluster in groups of individuals we deem similar (or box in so that they become similar) to ourselves, the excessive fear of the mortality of our various selves (social self, bodily self, emotional self, economic self etc).

    Second, some spectrum of schizophrenia; the split suggested by the projection of ones own aggression out onto the world and the subsequent paranoia (which the paranoid believe to be intelligence) and feelings of persecution,.

    Third, some sort of PTSD; the hyper vigilance born from living in an unsafe environment.

    Fourth, self-alienation; the disavowal of their true feelings which in some ways goes along with their narcissism (for example transforming hurt and sadness into anger), the inability to be vulnerable with others or even one’s self.

    Fifth, sociopathy; as opposed to psychopaths who tend to be loners, the sociopath consumes anything that gets near him like a black hole and is completely dependent on others for their survival (emotional “vampires” – Jodi Arias, economic “wendigos” – Bernie Madoff). The extreme end of narcissism, these are people who are so alienated from themselves they can no longer survive on internal emotional resources. Their violence and aggression knows no bound (whether or not that violence is physical or emotional), and their “bite” breeds new narcissist and sociopaths. What’s worse is that the more common they are in a population, the more they tend to prey on the youth who have yet to lose their innocence. You see it in narcissistic mothers on the individual scale, and on the societal level, money being the blood of the society, you see it in America’s compulsive reliance on debt.

    Sixth, a loss of the ability to love either themselves or others; Britain’s prime minister and perhaps the pope believe porn/the collapse of marriage is responsible for the reduction of mighty Eros. But I’m leaning towards these being symptoms: effects rather than causes. Treating the symptom is akin to putting a Band-Aid on the wound.

    My personal choice is to see the disease for what it is whenever I encounter it, either in America or else where, and starve it. Understand hatred for what it is and cut of the diseased limb so as not to be infected with the contagion. The proper use of violence: The return of physical war to its rightful metaphysical home – cleave the limb to spare the body; The gardener that prunes his garden: never engage emotionally or otherwise with someone overcome with fear or hatred.

    • As with all societal problems, it’s complicated and difficult to narrow things down to a root cause. Thanks for your very insightful thoughts on the subject. I appreciate you sharing them with me and the readers of this blog.

  5. I would add to income inequality, authoritarianism. Because of Christianity, we have a tendency to lean toward authoritarianism. Authoritarianism requires obedience and feels an injustice has been done when people don’t obey. Thus violent reactions to disobedience are seen as a right but also provoke violence as well as authoritarianism in one group inspires authoritarianism in others. The combination of the two promotes violence.

  6. Well well.
    We created this society. We… brainwash adults and children in order to perpetuate the society. We have people working in the multimedia/entertainment industry… who do what basically? They promote fear, uncertainty, doubt, hatred, physical violence, mental violence, etc. It is an endless cycle. It is ourselves, we should be ashamed of. It is our mental capacity to be violent. It is one’s own choice to be violent. Why is it so hard for us [Americans} to look the other way and create a brand new peaceful society?

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