Psychological Motives and Reasoning for Violent Crimes and Behavior

Saturday, July 03

By Sasha Khanin

While some crimes are mala in se and therefore, deemed immoral by society, some of these violent crimes can be explained, not necessarily excused or justified. Many studies conducted in America have asked young adults, primarily university students, about acts of violence on their part in the past, context, reasoning, and motives. In addition to this, these studies searched for correlations between environmental, socioeconomic, and sociocultural factors and young adults’ proclivity to engage in violent measures, especially in particularly difficult conflicts in their lives. 

According to the research paper, “A Socioecological Perspective on Intimate Partner Violence Research: A Decade in Review from the Journal of Marriage and Family, written by Jennifer L. Hardesty and Brian G. Ogolsky, which  gives insights and information on how sociocultural factors impact one’s tendency to use violent measures, “Residential instability, for example, is believed to relate to lower social cohesion and more stress factors, such as unemployment, that contribute to higher IPV risk. However, there is also evidence that residential stability can contribute to IPV risk, especially in communities with concentrated disadvantages or norms that condone IPV (Beyer et al., 2015)” (Hardesty and Ogolsky, 2020). This shows that there is no conclusive evidence proving whether a person will be violent based on sociocultural and neighborhood factors, but there is research showing that instability in residential settings during childhood can increase the risk for IPV. Additionally, exposure to IPV as a social norm even in substantially stable residential settings during childhood can also increase this risk. A psychological concept that addresses the prevalent relationship between the environment a child grows up in and how often they turn to violent measures, is observational learning. Observational learning means almost exactly what it sounds like; it refers to the idea of observing behavior and being more likely to repeat it. Hardesty and Ogolsky touch on this idea in their paper with their discussion of how exposure to violence in childhood can result in violent behavior as an adult. The same paper also revealed statistics regarding intimate partner violence victims for females and males, “Specifically, more than one in three (35.6%) women in the United States report experiencing IPV, including physical violence (32.9%), stalking (10.7%), or rape (9.4%), in their lifetime. For men, more than one in four (28.5%) report experiencing lifetime IPV, which is primarily physical violence (28.2%); 2.1% experienced stalking, but few reported experiencing rape” (Hardesty and Oglosky, 2020).  This means that a larger percentage of women will experience IPV or intimate partner violence than men, but these numbers do not address the motives and explanations for violence. The research paper, “Motivations for Psychological Aggression Among Dating College Students” from the Partner Abuse, Volume 7, Number 2, 2016 written by JoAnna Elmquist, John Hamel, Jeniimarie Febres, Heather Zapor, Caitlin Wolford-Clevenger, Meagan Brem, Ryan C. Shorey, Gregory L. Stuart, and contributed to by the University of Tennessee, elucidates the results of the study of psychological motives and reasoning of male and female undergraduate students who studied introductory psychology and dating violence prevalence. According to the study, “The psychological aggression subscale were skewed; thus, log transformations were used in all inferential analyses. Results indicated that the overall prevalence of psychological aggression in this study was 89.8%” (Elmquist,, 2016). There were a variety of motives for violence in dating among the college students, but some of the predominant ones were power and control, jealousy, communication issues, retaliation, sexual arousal, and negative emotional expression. There were also studies on psychological motives and reasoning based upon the sex of the undergraduate college students, “Retaliation: male: 4.41 (11.44) female: 7.03 (16.82) U: 4,568.5, p: .35, Power/control: male: 3.48 (10.08), female: 5.00 (13.70), U: 5,085.00, p: .94” (Elmquist,, 2016). Although it may be a popular belief that men are more aggressive than women, this research study shows that women are more likely to react in a violent way because of retaliation and power/control as motives for their actions.

“A Social Interactionist Approach to the Victim‑Offender Overlap” from the Journal of Quantitative Criminology written by Mark T. Berg and Richard Felson is another paper that  approaches the victim-offender relationship, specifically from a social interactionist perspective. “The perspective emphasizes three motives or incentives for violent behavior. First, actors engage in violence to force adversaries to comply or to deter them from doing something unwanted. Second, actors engage in violence to achieve retributive justice. … Third, violence is often used to promote self or social images.” (Berg and Felson, 2019). One of the most prevalent motives among violent-mannered perpetrators is retaliation because it mirrors all three motives of violence. Additionally, this research shows that attackers often use it as an option to force somebody to do something, to achieve vendetta, and promoting their own image. Another angle of the victim-offender relationship is analyzed, “A social interactionist perspective suggests that violent offenders are frequently victims of violence because of the way they behave, and the way third parties behave during verbal disputes that lead to escalation” (Berg and Felson, 2019). Some of the studied male inmates were most likely exposed to violence when they were younger, thus leading them to use violence as a measure for the variety of the aforementioned incentives and becoming perpetrators. The more aggressive inmates were found to be less likely to engage in amendatory behavior and more likely to try to escalate situations, specifically verbal aggression to physical aggression. 

Violent crimes often have underlying motives and explanations behind them, which include, but are not limited to, a desire for control, revenge, fear, retaliation, and anger (Neal, 2015). There are many indicators that mental illness and personality disorders correlate with a violent perpetrator’s motives for their crimes, as well as an inability to control emotions and articulate without violence. These findings signify that members of society can become violent in adulthood because of a troubled childhood and other environmental factors as such. As a whole, it can be concluded that more studies done that compare the motives for violent crimes in adults in America to violent behaviors in children, can prevent or at least reduce violent crimes in America if these behaviors are targeted early. 

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