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Using Gold Standard Science to Prevent Violence & Shootings: Not Smart-Watch Profiling

October 05, 2019

Ah, Brave New World is upon us, with proposals to use computerized, Silicon Valley, and Defense Department methods to stop shooters and related violence. The proposed savior would be a new Federal Agency, called HARPA.  The Washington Post article cites the proposal called: “SAFEHOME for Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes — which calls for exploring whether technology like phones and smartwatches can be used to detect when mentally ill people are about to turn violent.”

This proposal feels like Ground Hog Day on LSD to me. Why? Because the United States already has incredibly good science to prevent violence, but we are not using that science. You will be surprised what that science might be, and much of it dates back to the 1990s.  Virtually all of that science is accessible on pubmed.gov or PsychInfo. And, yes, our leaders might have to read sophisticated medical and behavioral science—instead of being dazzled by bright and shiny objects from Silicon Valley.

The gushing notion from the White House is that smartphones and watches might predict mentally ill people who are going ballistically violent. This might be good for Silicon Valley, but crappy science. Consider good science.

First, mental illness—per se—does not predict violence [1]. Here is a chart of such risk, which I have colorized for clarity.  You can see that there is a tiny difference in violence rates between people with no mental illness and those with just severe mental illness, but a bit more violence among people with addictions.

Second, the history of severe mental illness and substance abuse do not predict violence very well. A history of violence does, which is something well documented in behavioral science that goes half a century of behavioral science, a little before I wrote my senior honors paper on the subject at the University of Kansas.  

Third, if you want to predict to murder (e.g., homicide, we call it in science), you can find some inconvenient predictors related to large political campaign donors: a) airborne lead levels in the 3,011 counties in the lower 48 states [2]; b) omega-6 largely from soybean and corn oil in our diets and the school lunch program versus omega-3 (fish) consumption [3, 4].  Lead is well documented to cause reduced IQ, behavior problems, and aggression; yet sadly lead does not decay; and airborne lead levels measured by the EPA in lower 48 states (3,011 counties) predict both homicide and crime [2, 5]. 

Related to the combination of substance abuse plus violence, exposure to lead (Pb) modifies the brain to more likely to be addicted to alcohol [6].  Alcohol consumption and the risk of increased violence are exceptionally well documented in science [7-9], something I witnessed directly between my parents. High availability of “off-premises” alcohol has a significant impact on being shot; heavy drinkers were 2.67 times as likely to be shot in an assault when compared with nondrinker.

Fourth, there is a cultural, social aspect of homicides, too. Most people are unlikely to know the research about it, which is called the Culture of Honor [10-16].  In cultures where wealth is “portable” (e.g., herds of sheep or cows, gold, cash, precious jewels, drugs) versus fixed assets (e.g., not easily moved, such as a farm that requires considerable labor), violence and homicide are much higher. Famously, this was first elegantly studied by Nisbett and colleagues, showing that the descendants of such folks in the South are more likely to kill others as a matter of “honor.” As it happens, people from such cultures did differentially migrate to places in America, and the rates of gun homicide rates in those states are higher, as shown by the CDC map.

The examples in my essay are a fraction of known preventable causes of violent crime and homicides. In the 1990s, I had one of the handfuls of randomized-control studies to reduce youth violence in schools—funded by the Centers for Disease Control. My project, called, PeaceBuidlers, was the first randomized trial of whole school behavioral supports in the United States [17].  The CDC sent an EPI team to investigate an “outbreak of peace” in the research schools, and the EPI-team published the first medically-coded reduction in violent injuries in school [18]. The study was front-page news in Tucson, and almost any school in America can replicate the strategy that involved massive, written peer-to-peer reinforcement of positive behavior. We have a similar finding from our Good Behavior Game research [19], showing that peer-to-peer reinforcement for prosocial behavior reduces lifetime suicide risk [20, 21]. 

My essay notes just a few significant examples of known predictors of serious violence. And, no fancy cell phone or Apple watch would predict malleable causes or cures homicide mentioned in this essay. Our country’s leaders need to pay attention to accumulated medical and behavioral science available to any person in the world with an Internet connection to www.pubmed.gov.

PS. I do like my Apple Watch and iPhone. No offense to the devices; the idea that such devices would predict and reduce violent felony crimes is a complete distraction—unless one has visions of Brave New World or worse.

  1. Elbogen EB, Johnson SC: The intricate link between violence and mental disorder: Results from the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. Archives of General Psychiatry 2009, 66(2):152-161.
  2. Stretesky PB, Lynch MJ: The relationship between lead exposure and homicide. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 2001, 155(5):579-582.
  3. Hibbeln JR, Nieminen LR, Lands WE: Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five Western countries, 1961-2000. Lipids 2004, 39(12):1207-1213.
  4. Hibbeln JR: Seafood consumption and homicide mortality. A cross-national ecological analysis. World Review of Nutrition & Dietetics 2001, 88:41-46.
  5. Stretesky PB, Lynch MJ: The relationship between lead and crime. Journal of Health & Social Behavior 2004, 45(2):214-229.
  6. Mattalloni MS, Deza-Ponzio R, Albrecht PA, Cancela LM, Virgolini MB: Developmental lead exposure induces opposite effects on ethanol intake and locomotion in response to central vs. Systemic cyanamide administration. Alcohol 2017, 58:1-11.
  7. Bovasso G: Assessing the risk of threats with guns in the general population. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management 2014, 1(1):27-39.
  8. Branas CC, Elliott MR, Richmond TS, Culhane DP, Wiebe DJ: Alcohol consumption, alcohol outlets, and the risk of being assaulted with a gun. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2009, 33(5):906-915.
  9. Phillips S, Matusko J, Tomasovic E: Reconsidering the Relationship Between Alcohol and Lethal Violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2007, 22(1):66-84.
  10. Cohen D, Nisbett RE: Self-protection and the culture of honor: Explaining Southern violence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 1994, 20(5):551-567.
  11. Cohen D, Nisbett RE: Field experiments examining the culture of honor: The role of institutions in perpetuating norms about violence. In.: Sage Publications; 1997: 1188-1199.
  12. Cohen D, Nisbett RE, Bowdle BF, Schwarz N: Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An “experimental ethnography.”. In.: American Psychological Association; 1996: 945-960.
  13. Figueredo AJ, Tal IR, McNeil P, Guillén A: Farmers, herders, and fishers: The ecology of revenge. In.: Elsevier Science; 2004: 336-353.
  14. Nisbett RE: Violence and U.S. regional culture. American Psychologist 1993, 48(4):441-449.
  15. Nisbett RE, Cohen D: Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. In: Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Westview Press; 1996: xviii, 119-xviii, 119.
  16. Nisbett RE, Polly G, Lang S: Homicide and US regional culture. In: Interpersonal violent behaviors: Social and cultural aspects. edn. New York, NY, US: Springer Publishing Company; 1995: 135-151.
  17. Embry DD, Flannery DJ, Vazsonyi AT, Powell KE, Atha H: PeaceBuilders: A theoretically driven, school-based model for early violence prevention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 1996, 12(5, Suppl):91.
  18. Krug EG, Brener ND, Dahlberg LL, Ryan GW, Powell KE: The impact of an elementary school-based violence prevention program on visits to the school nurse. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 1997, 13(6):459-463.
  19. Embry DD: The Good Behavior Game: A Best Practice Candidate as a Universal Behavioral Vaccine. Clinical Child & Family Psychology Review 2002, 5(4):273-297.
  20. Wilcox HC, Kellam S, Brown CH, Poduska J, Ialongo N, Wang W, Anthony J: The impact of two universal randomized first- and second-grade classroom interventions on young adult suicide ideation and attempts. Drug & Alcohol Dependence 2008(Special Issue):14.
  21. Newcomer AR, Roth KB, Kellam SG, Wang W, Ialongo NS, Hart SR, Wagner BM, Wilcox HC: Higher Childhood Peer Reports of Social Preference Mediates the Impact of the Good Behavior Game on Suicide Attempt. Prev Sci 2016, 17(2):145-156.
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About the Author

Dennis Embry

Dennis Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. Dr. Embry serves as a National Advisory Council member and Chief Science Advisor to the Children’s Mental Health Network. His work and that of colleagues is cited in 2009 the Institute of Medicine Report on The Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People. Clinically his work has focused on children and adults with serious mental illnesses. In March 2014, his work and the work of several signatories was featured in a Prime-TV special on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation on the prevention of mental illnesses among children—which have become epidemic in North America.

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