June 15, 2010

Men Who Engage In Domestic Violence Overestimate How Common It Is

A new University of Washington-University of Houston study of men who engage in domestic violence finds that they overestimate how common domestic violence is.

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The tragic murder of UVA student Yeardley Love by her boyfriend brought domestic violence back into media spotlight last month.  And, a new media experiment on ABC by What Would You Do? asked whether and when people intervened when they witnessed domestic violence in public.  A new University of Washington-University of Houston joint study of men who engage in domestic violence, emotionally and physically harming their romantic partners, finds that they overestimate how common domestic violence is.  They conclude that these findings indicate the power of social norms in encouraging violent behavior.

The Study

A pair of psychology/psychiatry researchers, one from each of the universities, looked at 124 men who were enrolled in a treatment intervention study for domestic violence.  The men in their study, who had engaged in domestic violence against a partner in the last 3 months, were asked to estimate the percentage of men who had ever engaged in seven different forms of abuse:

  1. throwing something at a partner that could hurt
  2. pushing, grabbing, or shoving a partner
  3. slapping or hitting
  4. choking
  5. beating up a partner
  6. threatening a partner with a gun
  7. forcing a partner have sex when they did not want to.

The researchers compared their estimates to the number of men who actually engaged in such abusive behaviors.  For all seven of the abusive behaviors, the 124 men overestimated how much domestic violence actually occurs – sometimes twice or three times the actual rates.

But What Came First, Beliefs Or Behaviors?

One limitation of the study is its focus on men who already have a history of domestic violence.  Future research could explore the link between these beliefs about the prevalence of domestic violence and actually engaging in domestic violence, possibly through a long-term study on beliefs and behaviors of a sample of boys through adulthood.  One possibility is that men who engage in these violent behaviors attempt to justify their behavior  by attempting to encourage others (and, possibly themselves) to believe that domestic violence is common – “every man does it.”  These findings are important nonetheless, as they help us to better understand who engages in domestic violence and, to some extent, why.