On a Monday evening after a long day of work in June 2015, twelve individuals gathered in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was supposed to be a typical Bible study meeting, but it turned out to be anything but typical.
As the meeting began, an unfamiliar man arrived and was quickly welcomed into the group. After an hour, the new young man stood up, pulled out a gun and murdered nine of the participants.
Massacres like this one have become far too common in the U.S. Since 2013, every American city with a population of 400,000 or more except Austin, Texas, has experienced at least one mass shooting, defined as a shooting with four or more people killed or injured.
Since the start of this year alone, the crowdsourced Mass Shooting Tracker has reported 250 mass shootings in the United States. And between 2010 and 2015, the number of gangs across the U.S. increased by 8 percent and the number of new gang members increased by 11 percent, according to the National Gang Center.
Reading about these incidents in the news, it’s easy to assume that violence is inevitable. However, after 33 years of studying antisocial behavior, Arizona State University researcher Thomas Dishion has come to believe that violence can be prevented.
“Violence and terror come from a process that is predictable and can be reduced,” he says.
Dishion began his career as a student worker in a preschool. He quickly became aware of unhealthy aggression in children and the challenge of stopping it. He recalls watching a student aide struggle to break up a sand fight between five-year-olds on the playground. He was shocked to see a child attempting to hit another child over the head with a hard plastic chair.
“Violence and terror come from a process that is predictable and can be reduced.”
It was apparent to Dishion that educators were not provided with proper training on how to manage and reduce child aggression. He decided he wanted to change this.
“I realized adults need to have a better tool set for handling those aggressive exchanges but also for helping all the kids feel safe and happy in school,” Dishion says.
Today, Dishion is a professor of psychology and the founding director of the ASU REACH Institute. The institute is dedicated to improving the well-being of children and families by using scientifically supported interventions.
One of Dishion’s first research projects involved studying adolescent aggression in peer groups. This was an intervention study that delivered cognitive behavioral therapy to peer groups in the hopes of reducing problem behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of talk therapy that addresses the way an individual thinks and behaves. Much to Dishion’s dismay, this technique failed and ended up making the children more antisocial and more likely to smoke cigarettes after the intervention ended.
“That idea backfired and it turned out that interventions that aggregate high-risk children at a large scale often make them worse and more aggressive over time,” Dishion says.
This finding led Dishion to wonder how adolescents find friends and interact in a way that increases aggression. With funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dishion and his team have been studying how aggression can escalate into violence among a group of 800 ethnically diverse 11- to 30-year-olds. Starting in 1996, the researchers have been monitoring the individuals every two years.
At age 16, subjects were asked to bring in their best friends and were videotaped talking about problem-solving issues in their lives. Surprisingly, Dishion found that some friendships were actually organized around violence.
“We found a sub-group of those adolescents actually connected by talking about hurting other people,” he says.
He calls this process coercive joining. Coercion is the use of tactics such as fear mongering, name-calling, bullying and emotional manipulation to force others into complying. When two or more people bond over this kind of harmful behavior, they are engaging in coercive joining.
"You can get online and brandish a weapon or talk hate and you have an audience. If you perceive an approving audience...that strengthens that attitude and behavior.”
Long-term follow-up studies of these participants revealed that those who engaged in coercive joining as adolescents have a higher tendency to commit violent crimes as adults.
“If the adolescents, both males and females, were doing coercive joining with their friends on that videotape, five years later they are more likely to be arrested for assaults, carrying weapons and doing dangerous aggressive things,” says Dishion.
From analyzing the group, Dishion has found three well-defined predictors in childhood for why some individuals are more aggressive and more likely to pursue coercive joining than others. One predictor is being marginalized in schools. This includes having poor grades and poor relationships with peers or teachers. The other two predictors are having weak family relationships and low family socioeconomic status. These three predictors increase the likelihood of kids joining violent groups such as gangs by age 14.
Another factor that can encourage coercive joining in society is the Internet, where people can openly show hatred towards others and be cheered on for it.
“What is happening with the media is that you can get online and brandish a weapon or talk hate and you have an audience. If you perceive an approving audience, even online, that strengthens that attitude and behavior,” Dishion says.
Even in cases where only one person approves of a hateful comment, that commenter can feel justified and invigorated to be hateful in the future. That individual is also less likely to face any consequences on the Internet. Insulting a person face-to-face could result in social embarrassment or injury but posting hate online might result in likes or new followers.
Before the Charleston Church shooting, for example, the shooter created a website and regularly posted white supremacist messages. These included more than 60 photos with confederate flags and guns and a detailed manifesto describing black people as “lower beings.” He wrote about Googling his views and finding others who agreed. He even stated that he was going to do something in Charleston to start a race riot.
Another influence Dishion points to is leaders’ rhetoric. Politicians who employ aggressive tactics such as personal attacks inspire followers to be aggressive, as well. This can introduce new people to coercive relationships and lead to violence.
“Debates are healthy. Personal attacks are unhealthy. Not just for the people involved, but also for the large audience that quickly adopts those norms. You are actually encouraging folks to buy into aggressive values, especially if leaders name call or suggest one group is worse than another or that attacking another group is warranted,” he says.
It is important to remember that people want to feel like they belong, as well. This is an inherent, evolutionary need. When individuals feel ostracized, they become vulnerable and could seek acceptance in dangerous groups such as gangs or terrorist organizations. These dangerous groups target marginalized people and engage them in coercive joining.
“We all need a group and if you don’t have a group, you are more easily recruited in these types of groups,” Dishion says.
How to reduce violence
Fortunately, there are steps we can all take to reduce violence. In schools, educators can reduce coercion by creating systems that reward only non-aggressive behaviors. This could be having contests to win pizza parties or giving out awards for good behaviors.
“Just increasing the level of positive reinforcement to kids in school settings for positive behaviors can dramatically decrease aggression, and not only decrease at that point in time, but reduce the likelihood that those individual children will grow up and be aggressive as adolescents and adults,” says Dishion.
Recognizing bullying and stopping children from taking part in it is also essential. Educators need to speak up and stop aggressive groups from forming, to ensure each student feels welcomed and accepted.
For parents, Dishion advises making sure children receive adult supervision and recognition for positive behaviors. It is important to use positive reinforcement for good behaviors, such as congratulating children for doing well in school and telling them you appreciate their help.
“We have a responsibility to create new policies and procedures that would reduce the need for coercion."
Encourage your children to purse healthy activities and enroll them in adult supervised programs. If you work multiple jobs or do not get to spend much time with your children, Dishion advises asking extended family or friends to help ensure your children are not alone. The more time a child spends with peers without adults around, the more likely they are to engage in anti-social behaviors.
“We found the number of hours children spend with friends without an adult around is the best predictor for escalating anti-social behavior,” says Dishion.
Also, Dishion recommends paying close attention your children so that you can recognize changes in behavior, such as how they talk or dress, and intervene early.
For all individuals, Dishion advises we help shape our society to one where hard work is rewarded and families are supported. This includes policies that support parenting such as providing better wages and more opportunities for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. When parents have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, they miss out on getting to know their children.
“It is getting increasingly hard to be an involved, compassionate, mindful parent when there are so many stretches to making a living,” Dishion states.
He adds that we need to increase access to quality mental health and health care services for everyone and ensure we have good leadership from the president down to our school principals. Leaders who use nonaggressive communication help deescalate violence and coercive joining.
Dishion and his team are continuing their long-term study and plan to check up on the subjects at least one more time in the next two years. He then hopes to conduct a larger-scale study on terror and come up with recommendations for governments around the globe.
Dishion and his colleague James Snyder recently compiled a comprehensive analysis of coercive joining in families, peers, friendships, romantic relationships, schools and other institutions in their book, The Oxford Handbook of Coercive Relationship Dynamics (Oxford University Press, 2016). This book examines coercion in each of these dynamics and provides well-tested intervention techniques for reducing coercion.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of violence like the Charleston church shooting, gang activities and terrorist attacks, but by understanding factors that increase or decrease aggression, we can all help make a change.
“We have a responsibility to create new policies and procedures that would reduce the need for coercion,” says Dishion.