Researchers take aim at gun violence by targeting desire for revenge

Two bullet casings on the sidewalk.
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The desire for revenge that motivates most gun violence can be slaked by offering those considering violence a safe alternative – a mock trial of the individual who has done them wrong, a Yale pilot study has found.

While gun control efforts have proved politically problematic, “motive control” efforts that focus on decreasing or eliminating the desire to kill may represent a more widely accepted approach to reducing violence in society, the authors argue in a study published Dec. 19 in the The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

A mock trial gives victims of perceived injustice a safe, socially-accepted outlet for their feelings of rage and desire for revenge,” said Yale’s Michael Rowe, professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study. “It also gives them a sense of empowerment and control, and the opportunity to explore the situation from different viewpoints and to evaluate the costs of retaliating.”

The researchers canvassed clinicians, community health centers and other agencies to find individuals who struggled with a strong desire for revenge within the previous six months. They identified 21 such individuals and then guided each of them through a mock trial of a person who harmed them in a fictional scenario involving the killing of their dog.

At the end, roles were reversed and the subjects were asked to envision being the defendant in a trial after acting upon their desire for revenge.

It’s very powerful,” said James Kimmel, Jr., a lawyer, lecturer in psychiatry at Yale and co-author of the study. “Revenge desires among study participants decreased significantly immediately after using the method and at 2-week follow-up. Feelings of benevolence toward the offender increased. We were encouraged by the potency and durability of the effect.”

Kimmel, who was bullied in high school and considered exacting revenge, came up with the idea after litigating many vengeance-motivated cases in court and observing the effects on clients and adversaries.

CDC and FBI data indicate that the primary motive behind most gun violence is the desire of shooters to retaliate for perceived injustices,” Kimmel said. “Yet until now there have been no mental health strategies that specifically target revenge.”

If additional research confirms efficacy of this approach, the authors envision policymakers, health care providers, schools, courts, law enforcement agencies, and prisons using it as part of violence prevention programs and to  help at-risk individuals.

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Media Contact

Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322