Another victim of violence: Trust in those who mean no harm

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Another victim of violence: Trust in those who mean no harm

Exposure to violence does not change the ability to learn who is likely to do harm, but it does damage the ability to place trust in “good people,” says a report by a team of psychologists in the journal Nature Communications.

More than 80% of youth in urban areas experienced violence in their communities in the last year, and those experiences have a profound effect on their health, according to the researchers.

What the researchers say: “We know exposure to violence is related to negative life outcomes, from increased physical and mental health problems to greater engagement in violent behavior. But there is very little research on understanding the underlying cognitive processes that might be affected by this life experience,” said the co-senior author of the paper.

The researchers studied 119 males incarcerated in Connecticut prisons, some of whom scored high on exposure to violence. Participants in the study learned about two strangers who faced a moral dilemma: whether to inflict painful electric shocks on another person in exchange for money. While the “good” stranger mostly refused to shock another person for money, the “bad” stranger tended to maximize their profits despite the painful consequences. The participants were asked to predict the strangers’ choices, and later had to decide how much trust to place in the good versus the bad stranger.

The team found that participants with higher exposure to violence effectively learned that the good stranger made fewer harmful choices than the bad stranger. However, when deciding whom to trust, they trusted the good stranger less than participants who had a lower exposure to violence.

“In other words, exposure to violence disrupted the ability to place trust in the ‘right’ person,” said the lead author of the paper. “We also saw that this disruption led to a greater number of disciplinary infractions within the prison setting.”

The researchers said the findings suggest that exposure to violence changes the way people use information they’ve learned to make healthy social decisions.

“Social flourishing depends on learning who is likely to be helpful vs. harmful, and then using that information to decide who to befriend versus avoid,” they said. “Our research suggests exposure to violence impairs this crucial aspect of social functioning.”

So, what? The interesting thing about this research is that it concentrates on physical violence—maybe because of the population under study. Other research this week has shown that emotional or psychological violence may have the same effect. This may include bad—largely transactional— management, school or workplace bullying, threats of job or income loss, social exclusion and so on.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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