Archive for the ‘Understanding Aggression’ Category

“Badge of delusion”


Most people who read the editorial in the Friday March 27th Dallas Morning News will totally relate to the indignation toward the abusive behavior of a Dallas police officer, Robert Powell.  He showed such a lack of empathic understanding and social intelligence that it challenges our faith in mankind.


Most people will also feel at least some comfort as the editor did in the conclusion that although he will probably keep his job at least he will have to live forever with the self-knowledge “that in a matter of life and death, he screwed over a fellow human being just because he could.”


Unfortunately, this is living in a fantasy world where deep down everybody is a good person.  In my 42 years of practicing psychiatry I have never had an abusive person come in and say, “I am an insensitive, self-absorbed, abusive person and I really feel bad about it.  I suffer from guilt and shame and I want to do whatever I can do to atone for my bad behavior.  I know it’s wrong to get high on power trips and watching people squirm – I know it’s wrong to feel smug and righteous using the letter of the law to ignore extenuating circumstances, while jacking people around.”  And they also don’t say, “I know I should care what other people think of me, I should be able to put myself in other people’s shoes and be able to see things from their perspective.  I know I should have at least some spiritual connections and values outside of myself.  I shouldn’t rationalize and blame the victim when there’s a bad outcome.  I have to be true to myself – I was doing my job – the dude broke the law – everybody has an excuse.”


Reality is that it’s only those that are abused and victimized that live with the memory and pain forever.  

 See editorial


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Violence in Sports and the Nature of Aggression and Lessons Learned from Kenny Rogers and John Wooden

Kenny Rogers of the Texas Rangers joined a growing list of sports heroes who become infamous after public displays of totally inappropriate aggression. What is it about our nature and especially professional sports that causes this behavior? What lessons are we not learning or at least not applying to reduce or ideally eliminate this kind of behavior?

John Wooden was named by ESPN as Coach of the Century for the twentieth century. At age 94 this week he released a new book, Wooden on Leadership. He stands in apparent sharp contrast to sports heroes “out of control.” In his book he describes 15 principles of leadership in his “Pyramid of Success.” They include: poise, confidence, skill, self-control, initiative, loyalty, and enthusiasm. Emotionalism of any kind, he notes, is our enemy. It interferes with the positive traits that lead to success.

John Wooden’s 41 year coaching record has never been equaled. He won ten national college basketball championships in 12 years – with 3 completely different teams. We visualize him as the paragon of class. But he admits that his self-control came gradually. Beneath great success usually burns high intensity. He recalls as a young coach being cursed and belittled by an opposing coach whose team they had just beaten. “I saw red and without thinking, knocked him down to the court.”

As we seek to understand why our sports heroes are increasingly losing their composure it’s especially helpful to read what Wooden says lead him to quit sports at the height of his success 30 years ago. He describes the feeling of living under a magnifying glass, and the “never ending speculation.” He says the “overwhelming attention, inspection, and curiosity become more of an irritant.” It was deeply disturbing when I read how he lost control as a young coach and then later quit because of all the pressure of media scrutiny. I feel more compassion toward our current “fallen heroes.”

So we begin to better understand the psychology of striving for perfection and risking your self-esteem in front of thousands if not millions of people over and over again. Our culture puts athletes on a pedestal. They are paid millions of dollars and lead life styles most of us will never know. With success comes a certain inevitable narcissism. Then with failure – losses, trades, comes disappointment and frustration and increased media scrutiny. We should all try to imagine being at one of our lowest points and having TV cameras in our face and sports journalists speculating about what’s really going on with us. Are we being sincere and doing our best or are we faking and manipulating? But why violence?

Sports is mostly a civilized competition that is at the foundation a sublimation of combat. The instinct to wage war is deeply rooted in our genes. Men especially are hard wired as protectors and providers. The amount of hormone testosterone is related to aggression. Jane Goodall discovered that male Chimpanzees would band together to wage war against other Chimpanzee groups. One interesting outcome of battle is that the testosterone level in the victors goes up but it goes down in the losers. Perhaps these hormone changes help to establish power hierarchies and establish some form of social order.

Even more basic to the biology of aggression are the brain transmitters, especially serotonin and norepinephrine. Serotonin is the oldest and most primitive brain system. It is primarily responsible for homeostasis (balance) and control. Studies have found that the more violent behavior is, the lower the serotonin levels in the brain. Conversely, norepinephrine, the brain transmitter system associated with arousal and “fight or flight,” is elevated in impulsive or angry aggression. None of this physiology applies to cold-blooded, premeditated aggression.

There are several polymorphic genes that increase the tendency to be aggressive or violent. In one study of violent delinquent teens it was only the combination of certain gene types plus a history of childhood abuse that resulted in violent criminal behavior. There is overlap between intensity, extreme competitiveness, and aggressiveness. A famous coach once said, “you show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

Does all this mean that violent acts by professional athletes are inevitable? Given that, even John Wooden punched an opposing coach. It’s in their genes and cameras are in their face so shouldn’t we accept it as unavoidable? I don’t believe that we can prevent all future episodes but there are major changes that could be made to markedly reduce these incidents.

We need to educate people about the nature of aggression and make them aware of the many available treatment approaches. Hypnosis works for some. In my 39 years of clinical experience I have seen many people who could not control their “short fuse” temper without taking medication. There are several mood stabilizers (see Best Meds) that have been found to be very effective. There are also certain blood pressure medications that have been found to be useful (Propranolol, Clonodine, Guanfacine). Others do well on antidepressants or ADHD medications. Having mandatory severe punishment – stated in advance would help with self-control in the “heat of battle.”

In the case of Kenny Rogers many factors contributed to his “blow up.” He had been showing increasing inappropriate behavior – but apparently nothing was said or done. He was maligned in the media. There is some evidence that team officials were leaking information to the media in an apparent attempt to provoke him in some way that’s not clear. Were they trying to inspire an increase in his competitive intensity? Were they trying to manipulate him to ask for a trade? I’m sure there are factors that we don’t understand. If the constant in your face media drove John Wooden out of coaching maybe we need to reexamine the degree of access the media has to the players.

On the other hand doesn’t all this make for good gossip? Don’t we need escapism from day to day pressure and stress? So is the system really “broke?” If it is “broke” do we really want to fix it?

Related Blog: You Got To Know When To Walk Away …

Related Blog: Go Team! Fans, Testosterone and You …

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You Got To Know When To Walk Away….

The other Kenny Rogers (Texas Ranger pitcher) with arguably the best first half of the season in the American league lost his composure if not his mind before a game in Arlington, Texas on Wednesday, June 29, 2005. Footage of him pushing away TV cameras, knocking down a cameraman and kicking the camera dominated the national news today. One of the cameramen was evaluated at a local hospital and is reporting injuries to his neck and back.

What pushed the most valuable player on the Rangers to join the ranks of Bobby Knight, Ron Artest, and other notorious athletes with violent tempers? Is it the intense competition that has driven their success since childhood? Is it the constant media pressure and scrutiny? Is it the fault of a social system that elevates our sports heroes to positions loftier than us mere mortals with their multi-million dollar a year salaries? Is it the fact that if they don’t continue to perform they are history? Is it the fact that they are really just commodities that can be traded away? Is it because overnight they can lose a team mate who has been traded? Yes, to all of the above plus sometimes you can add in performance enhancing substances including but not just steroids.

The biggest problem is that we are not learning from experience. The Indiana Pacers of the National Basketball Association lost their star player, Ron Artest, for the season after he charged into the stands during a game with the Detroit Pistons in the fall of 2004. The Texas Rangers were aware of Kenny Roger’s temper and his progressive loss of control during the prior month but they apparently took no action.

What causes this behavior from a biological, psychological and cultural perspective?

Related Article: Violence in Sports …

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Go Team! Fans, Testosterone and You …

On 9-14-04 I made a diary entry after the baseball incident where a pitcher threw a chair into the stands. In the baseball incident, I was most perplexed by the lack of any commentary about the fans’ roles in the problem or their inappropriate behavior. Now this weekend we had the Detroit incident where players went into the stands and players and fans were punching each other. What is up with all this insanity?

On Sunday following the incident, NBA commissioner David Stern made a comment. Punishments were quick and harsh. What impressed me the most about his comments was that he included the fact that the league will make changes that also regulate the fans’ behavior. 

A previous incident where a basketball player went into the stands was provoked by a fan taunting him about the death of his child. I hope that the public will get behind the NBA in mandating civilized behavior by the fans. Earl Warren is reported to have said – "I can’t give you an exact definition of pornography, but I know it when I see it."

We know when a fan has crossed the line and become abusive, and we all need to help security promptly and effectively deal with these individuals. Some of the fans in Detroit should face criminal charges and suspensions from attending games for the season.

I was disappointed when USA Today came out Monday morning – Page 1 Headline – "Pacer Suspended for Season", "Is Game Out of Control?" The story takes up 1/2 of page 1 and 1/2 of page 2, but the article fails to mention the need for standards to regulate fan behavior.

I will do an article soon about the physiology and treatment options for inappropriate aggression.

Did you know that testosterone increases aggression? 

And did you know that athletes on the winning team and their fans have an increase in testosterone after the game? 

Did this contribute to Ron Artest going up into the stands? 

The corollary to the testosterone increase is that the losing team and their fans have a decrease in their testosterone. I have been a Cubs fan for over 50 years – no wonder I’m not a fighter.

Related Article: Violence in Sports …

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