As may be unsurprising to many of you, reading basic emotions in others may be a key to predicting violence.
Humintell has written for years on the importance of basic emotions, but does understanding these emotions help better understand or predict violent behavior? Drs. David Matsumoto, Hyi Sung Hwang, and Mark Frank all agree with a resounding “yes” in a blog article written for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Their observations ring true as an important explication of how fundamental our basic emotions can be.
Different emotions can mean categorically different things. For instance, contempt, disgust, and anger all refer to feelings of emotion towards an out-group, but they mean different things. Anger is usually channeled at somebody’s actions, while disgust and contempt are focused on the other person themselves.
They proceed to elaborate on the role that disgust can have in predicting violence. Disgust, they write, results in the desire to eliminate the disgusting object. Certainly, this can have horrifying consequences when applied to other people, and they point to genocidal leaders, terrorists, and mass shooters as consistently evincing disgust in public speeches or videos.
Contempt is a similar phenomenon as disgust, in that it focuses on another’s actions as they relate to status and hierarchy. That person is often seen as not fitting the status that they claim. This is a different sort of emotion, but it also leads to a disposition against the individual not just their actions.
Anger is often seen as an important predictor of violence, but given the context of terrorism and genocide, disgust may be the particularly salient emotion. That said, anger can easily be turned into disgust. Since anger is focused on a given situation or action, its conversion to disgust can involve a larger shift in attitude from a specific instance to a more general disposition towards an out-group.
Still, while disgust and contempt are being emphasized, anger has a crucial role here too. It is through anger that the hesitation against action is overcome. While an individual may be motivated to violence through disgust or contempt, it is through anger that they actually make this decision to act rather than to refrain.
This is all the case at a very physiological level as well. We act out of anger because anger increases our heart rate and blood flow. Similarly, disgust is a deep-seated emotion born out of our concerns for parasites and the need to ensure the safety of food and water.
It may be helpful to see these relationships more simply. Contempt and disgust lead to the breakdown of relations between groups or individuals, and anger leads to those same individuals actually acting on such hostility. This underscores the need to be able to not just detect anger but to read people’s emotions more broadly.