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Organ der Neurowissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft

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Volume 23, Issue 2


Lust for violence: Appetitive aggression as a fundamental part of human nature

Thomas Elbert / James K. Moran / Maggie Schauer
Published Online: 2017-05-16 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/nf-2016-A056


Appetitive aggression describes a biologically-driven form of aggressive behaviour and violence characterized by positive affect. In contrast to reactive aggression, which has the function of resisting a threat, and reducing concomitant negative emotional arousal and anger, appetitive aggression underlies the pleasure of violence. A prototypical example is hunting, which can in turn transfer to the hunting of humans and can even result in bloodlust, and killing for its own sake. At the physiological level, this morally illicit pleasure is accompanied by an adrenalin surge, the release of cortisol and endorphins. In order to activate reward systems via appetitive aggression, their moral and cultural restraints need to be overridden. For example, armed groups work to dehumanize the enemy. Once initiated, a positive feedback loop is generated: As the individual commits more acts of violence with elements of positive affect, the tendency to commit them grows, and they begin to be perceived more positively. A latent passion for fighting and dominance can probably be evoked in almost all men and in some women. The cumulative outcome of whole groups, tribes, or communities enacting this aggression is war and destruction, to the point of trying to extinguish entire ethnic groups:“… and yes, human beings, hundreds of thousands of otherwise normal people, not professional killers, did it.” (from “The Killers in Rwanda Speak” by Jean Hatzfeld, 2005). Thus, appetitive aggression, the disposition towards a lust for violence, is by no means a psychopathological anomaly but an intrinsic part of the human behavioural repertoire. Morality, culture and the state monopoly on violence constitute the guards that regulate aggression potential and to channel it into socially useful forms.

Keywords: Violence; Aggression; Psychopathy; Neuroscience; GENETICS


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About the article

Thomas Elbert

Thomas Elbert studied psychology, mathematics and physics at the Universities of Munich and Tübingen. He received his PhD in Tübingen in 1978 and taught there until 1989 with intermittent visiting professorships at Pennsylvania State University and Stanford University. He then became head of a clinical research group in the field of neuroscience at the Medical Faculty of University of Münster. Since 1995 he has been Professor of Clinical Psychology and Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Konstanz. Together with Prof. Dr. Frank Neuner and Dr. Maggie Schauer he developed the narrative exposure therapy (NET) in order to treat traumatic stress symptoms; NET has also been successfully tested in field studies in crisis regions in Africa and Asia. His studies on the “psychobiology of human readiness for violence and killing” have been funded since 2010 by the German research foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) as a Reinhart Koselleck project.

Professor Elbert is Hector fellow, member of the German academy of sciences Leopoldina, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences as well as OCSE Professor in the National Italian Commission for Scientific Qualification and holds honorary professorships at the Université Lumiére in Burundi and the Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda.

James K. Moran

Dr. James K. Moran studied Psychology and Philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, completed his Master’s Degree as a clinical psychologist at the University of Konstanz, and subsequently completed a PhD on the neuropsychological and physiological consequences of traumatic experiences as well as aggression and violence, focusing on members of armed groups. Dr. Moran has investigated these questions both via neuropsychological imaging techniques in laboratory experiments, as well as in the field in war and crisis regions in East Africa.

Maggie Schauer

Dr. Maggie Schauer is a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma-related disorders. She is the director of the Centre of Excellence for Psychotraumatology at the University of Konstanz. Her research projects are focused on multiple and complex traumatization as well as the transgenerational consequences of violence and neglect. Dr. Schauer works with child and adult survivors of organized and domestic violence. In collaboration with Professors Frank Neuner and Thomas Elbert, she developed Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET), an intervention for the treatment of trauma-related disorders after multiple and complex trauma. Dr. Schauer coordinates Therapy and Social Interventions in war and crisis regions, in refugee camps after humanitarian crises and natural disasters, in demobilization projects for child soldiers. She is also active in treating survivors of torture and human rights violations both in their land of origins, and in Germany with refugees and asylum seekers. She is a founding member of vivo international (www.vivo.org), an NGO for the prevention and treatment of traumatic stress. She is a founding member and advisor of the Babyforum, a network of experts specialized in the care of pregnant women, child welfare, and early intervention.

Published Online: 2017-05-16

Published in Print: 2017-05-24

Citation Information: e-Neuroforum, Volume 23, Issue 2, Pages 77–84, ISSN (Online) 1868-856X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/nf-2016-A056.

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