Welcome to the New HFG.org

Notice anything different? HFG.org has a new look, replacing the site that served the Foundation well for years. 

Designed by Peter Mendelsund and Harrison Carter, the site is the Foundation’s new digital home — clear, easy to navigate, and ready to host a growing set of online offerings from topical reports and groundbreaking research to contributions from our Distinguished Fellow of Practice, Greg Berman

The site will continue to serve as an information hub and application portal for the Foundation’s signature grants: The Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholars, Emerging Scholars, and African Fellows. It will also house HFG’s reports, research, and information on HFG-sponsored programs and events.

We believe the new site will aid our efforts to generate and disseminate knowledge against violence. We welcome your feedback. Let us know what you think by visiting our contact page


Daniel F. Wilhelm, President
The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Welcomes Its 2020 Dissertation Fellows

Meet the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation 2020 Dissertation Fellows. These emerging scholars, rigorously chosen through a global peer-review competition, are studying topics addressing violence between intimate partners, neighbors, and governments and citizens.


2020 Fellows and Research Topics

Maayan Armelin (History, Clark University). Leadership Styles and Social Relations in the SS-Einsatzgruppen

Philip Johnson (Political Science, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York). Narcommunication: The Public Messages, Murders, and Media of Organized Crime

Chulani Kodikara (Political Science, University of Edinburgh). Grief and Hope, Inscription and Erasure: A Struggle for Truth and Justice in Post-War Sri Lanka

Molly Minden (Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison). Legacies of Wartime Violence in Social Mobilization: Resistance to Dams in Guatemala

Lindsay Randall (Anthropology, University of Edinburgh). Contesting the City: Kinship, Islam, and Ethnic Politics of Belonging in Harar, Ethiopia

Maria Restrepo-Ruiz (Public Health, University of Connecticut). Intimate Partner Violence in Armed Conflict Contexts: The Case of Colombia

Matthew Simonson (Network Science, Northeastern University). Kill a Stranger, Save a Neighbor: Civilian and Combatant Networks Under Fire

Roya Talibova (Political Science, University of Michigan). Why Fight? The Causes and Consequences of Joining an Autocrat’s Army

William Whitham (History, Princeton University). Statism and Anarchy: Illusion, Insurrection, and the Tragedy of the Left

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Renames Three Signature Awards

February 17, 2021

(NEW YORK) — The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, a global research foundation dedicated to the study of violence, has adopted new names for its research awards.  

These awards, selected through rigorous peer-review competition and given to scholars without regard to citizenship, are keystones of a larger program of research, discussion, and dissemination of ideas. All represent the Foundation’s enduring commitment to scholarly research—both basic and applied—into the causes and amelioration of violence. 

“A change of title might seem like a small matter, but these new names much more accurately reflect the experience, prominence, and focus of the scholars who receive these grants,” said president Daniel F. Wilhelm. “Moreover, they more accurately capture the promise this work has shown over decades to explicate more fully the causes and control of violence to those within the academy and those in the realms of practice and policy.”

The name changes do not affect the work of scholars currently funded by the Foundation.  

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is a leader in creating and disseminating knowledge on the nature, consequences, and reduction of violence in its many forms, including war, crime, and human aggression.

For more information contact: 

Nyeleti Honwana, Program Officer
info@hfg.org | 646.428.0976

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Welcomes Its 2020 Distinguished Scholars

February 17, 2021

(NEW YORK) — The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is pleased to announce the selection of its 2020 HFG Distinguished Scholars. These fifteen leading researchers are undertaking projects poised to make significant contributions to understanding the causes, manifestations, and control of violence across the globe. 

The international cohort of scholars, chosen through a rigorous peer-review competition, are investigating a rich and varied collection of violence topics, including those involving gender, religion, ethnicity, prisons, policing, social media, intergroup attitudes, conflict resolution, and post-war societies.


In selecting the awardees, highest priority was given to research that addresses urgent, present-day problems of violence—what produces it, how it operates, and what prevents or reduces it.  

“Given the abundance of violence in the world, we are gratified to be able to support the work of this impressive group of researchers,” said Foundation Director of Research Joel Wallman. “As they seek to comprehend the array of violence issues from different disciplinary perspectives, we expect their work to significantly augment the body of knowledge forged by scholars who study violence, and we hope that the scholarship we support will inform efforts to reduce violence.” 

These awards were previously known as the Harry Frank Guggenheim Research Grants. The Foundation adopted the new name to better reflect the excellence of the scholars who receive these grants and the promise of their research. 

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is a leader in creating and disseminating knowledge on the nature, consequences, and reduction of violence in its many forms, including war, crime, and human aggression.

2020 Scholars and Research Topics

Smadar Ben-Natan (University of Washington). The Carceral State in Conflict: Between Reconciliation and Radicalization

Katherine Bruce-Lockhart (University of Waterloo) and David M. Anderson (University of Warwick). Understanding Violence and Incarceration in Africa: Evidence from British Colonies and Postcolonial States

Ankur Datta (South Asian University). Victimhood in a Time of Crisis: Muslims and the Riots of 2020 in New Delhi, India

David Henig (Utrecht University). Deadly Environments: Living Among Explosive War Remnants in Former Yugoslavia

Daniel Hirata and Carolina Christoph Grillo (Fluminense Federal University). Police Special Operations and Armed Criminal Groups in Rio De Janeiro

Benjamin Hoy (University of Saskatchewan). Dominating a Continent: Violence, Retribution, and Forcible Confinement in North America

Dorian Juric (Unaffiliated). “Twas Always Known As the Bloody Frontier”: Rumours, Memories, and Bosnian Identity in the Migrant Crisis   

Gema Kloppe-Santamaria (Loyola University Chicago). In the Name of Christ: Religious Violence and Its Legitimacy in Mexico (1920-2020)

Uri Lifshin (Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya). Increasing Perceived Similarity of the Self to Animals to Reduce Intergroup Hostility and Promote Peace: Testing a Novel Intervention in Three Nations

Pamela Mainye (Kisii University). Super-Cops, Extra-Judicial Killings, and Popular Imaginaries of Policing in Facebook Groups in Nairobi

Eric Min (University of California, Los Angeles). Fighting and Bargaining Across Two Centuries of International Conflict

Laine Munir (University of Rwanda). Valuable Resources: Women, Conflict, and Modern Mining Practices in Rwanda

Robert Simiyu (Kisii University). Geography, Identity Formation, and Intra-Ethnic Conflicts in Kenya’s Mt. Elgon Region: Deconstructing the Soy-Mosop Divide As a Basis for Conflict Resolution

Jeremy Speight (University of Alaska), Philip A. Martin (George Mason University) and Giulia Piccolino (Loughborough University). Ex-Rebel Authority in Post-Conflict Politics: Evidence from Côte d’Ivoire 

Yael Zeira (Syracuse University) and Alexandra Siegel (University of Colorado Boulder). The Ethnicization of Conflict: A Social Media Analysis

Criminal Justice Expert Greg Berman Named Inaugural Guggenheim Distinguished Fellow of Practice

February 17, 2021

Credit: Millly Berman
Credit: Millly Berman

(NEW YORK) — Noted criminal justice expert Greg Berman has been named the inaugural Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Distinguished Fellow of Practice. In this role, Mr. Berman, who led the Center for Court Innovation for 18 years, will examine recent increases in violent crime in New York and related trends in other U.S. cities. 

Mr. Berman will conduct and edit a year-long series of interviews with leading criminal justice researchers, policymakers, and advocates. These discussions will form the basis of At the Crossroads: Community Violence in New York City, a multimedia editorial project to be published by HFG.org and partner organizations. 

Through the interviews, Mr. Berman will cultivate insights on community violence to identify areas ripe for research, better connect scholarship to action, and model an approach for civil conversation around challenging topics. 

The first installment is a conversation with Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who explores factors behind a near-doubling of the rate of shootings in New York City in 2020.  

“We are launching this fellowship to align more effectively our continuing commitment to rigorous scholarship on violence with policy and practice, participate more energetically in public discourse, and reduce barriers between research and action,” said Foundation president Daniel F. Wilhelm. “I can think of no more highly regarded leader whose career exemplifies a dedication to creating deep substantive knowledge and implementing it in practical ways than Greg Berman.”

“I am honored to be named the first Distinguished Fellow of Practice at The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation,” Mr. Berman said. “The Foundation’s support for superb scholarly research is well-known. I am excited to explore how research and practice can better communicate with and inform one another when it comes to violent crime in New York City.”

Mr. Berman served as senior fellow at the Center for Court Innovation, a leading nonprofit institution that seeks to improve the justice system in America. He was part of the founding team of the organization and its executive director from 2002 to 2020. Mr. Berman writes a regular column on leadership for New York Nonprofit Media and has authored four books. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Law and Policy, and numerous other publications. 

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Fellow of Practice role recognizes a leading practitioner in one of the many fields that contend with issues of violence—including government, multilateral institutions, civil-society organizations, and journalism—to support a project examining a contemporary violence issue over the course of one year. Projects explore violence from the perspective of a practitioner whose work is informed by research. 

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is a leader in creating and disseminating knowledge on the nature, consequences, and reduction of violence in its many forms, including war, crime, and human aggression.

For more information contact: 

Nyeleti Honwana, Program Officer
info@hfg.org | 646.428.0976

Surer Mohamed Named 2021 Harry Frank Guggenheim Research Fellow at Pembroke College Cambridge

March 11, 2021

Surer Mohamed
Surer Mohamed

(CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom) —  Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, has appointed Surer Mohamed as the next Harry Frank Guggenheim Research Fellow. The fellowship will commence in October 2021.

Ms. Mohamed, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Politics and International Studies at Queens’ College Cambridge, is studying post-conflict urban reconstruction and conflict-related property disputes in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Research Fellowship was established at Pembroke College in 2011 in honor of Harry Frank Guggenheim, an alumnus of Pembroke and veteran of both world wars, who recognized the need for research into the origins and problems of human violence. 

The fellowship is a three-year award supporting post-doctoral research that increases the understanding of the causes, manifestations, and control of violence in the present world. Priority is given to candidates who make a compelling case for the relevance of potential findings for policies intended to reduce these ills. Ms. Mohamed will be the third holder of the Fellowship.

Taking up this Research Fellowship will allow me to contribute meaningfully to questions of political violence and its aftermath in African urban spaces - Surer Mohamed

Lord Smith of Finsbury, Master of Pembroke College, said, “Surer is an outstanding scholar, doing ground-breaking research work on Mogadishu, and enhancing our understanding of the issues of violence and property rights in this important part of Africa. We will be proud to welcome her into our Pembroke Fellowship.”

“I am honored and delighted to have been appointed as the next Harry Frank Guggenheim Research Fellow at Pembroke College,” said Ms. Mohamed. “Taking up this Research Fellowship will allow me to contribute meaningfully to questions of political violence and its aftermath in African urban spaces. My research specifically focuses on the politics of post-conflict urban reconstruction in Mogadishu, which is an under-researched part of the political landscape of Somalia. I hope that in pursuing this line of inquiry, I can make a scholarly contribution that centers how everyday Mogadishians understand their political lives and their intersection with violence.

“I would not be able to conduct this research without the generous support of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and Pembroke College. I am deeply grateful to the Foundation for this opportunity, and I look forward to contributing to its work addressing issues of contemporary violence. I am also very excited to join the vibrant community of scholars and students at Pembroke College, and I look forward to contributing meaningfully to college life during my tenure.”

Daniel F. Wilhelm, President of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, said, “We are very pleased to honor Harry Frank Guggenheim’s legacy at Pembroke College with the research fellowship that bears his name. It is an essential opportunity to support rigorous scholarship on violence that has resonance both within and beyond the academy.  Surer Mohamed’s work promises an important examination of the nexus of conflict, politics, and property in Somalia’s capital city.”

About Pembroke College

Founded in 1347, Pembroke College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge. Its mission is to bring together the brightest students, from the broadest range of backgrounds; nurture outstanding research; provide the very best educational opportunities; and by doing so help to make a difference to the world.

Pembroke is a medium-sized Cambridge college and offers places in every undergraduate subject studied at the University. The letters patent granted to Marie de St. Pol by Edward III provided for a house of 30 scholars. Today Pembroke is home to 492 undergraduate students and 309 postgraduate students. It has 75 Fellows, and the 54th, and current, Master is Lord Smith of Finsbury PC.

The college is a vibrant community, that believes academic success comes not only from the excellence of teaching, and the leading research that underpins it, but also from a supportive and caring environment. It supports a wide range of academic activities including public lectures, seminars, conferences, and visiting scholar schemes.

About the Foundation

The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is a leader in creating and disseminating knowledge on the nature, consequences, and reduction of violence in its many forms, including war, crime, and human aggression. It is committed to funding scholarly research into the causes and amelioration of violence, especially urgent and contemporary problems of violence.

For more information contact: 

Nyeleti Honwana, Program Officer
info@hfg.org | 646.428.0976

Annual HFG Symposium on Crime in America Examines Criminal Justice Reform in the Biden Era

March 29, 2021

(NEW YORK)The 16th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America was held March 4-5 with the theme: “The Next Four Years: Justice in the Biden Era.”

Normally held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, the conference and related events were presented online as a webinar this year due to the pandemic. 

The two-day symposium, organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, convened journalists, scholars, and policymakers from around the country to discuss emerging crime and violence issues. With 14 panels on topics ranging from “Setting a Bipartisan Agenda” to “Solutions to Excessive Force,” speakers explored the state of crime and violence in the U.S. with an emphasis on potential changes under the Biden administration and in light of recent demands for policing, prosecutorial, and prison reform. 

Speakers included Bill Bratton, former NYPD Commissioner; Eddie Garcia, Dallas Chief of Police, Chesa Boudin, San Francisco District Attorney; Christine Leonard, Counsel for the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives; Stephen Tausend, Legislative Director, Office of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas); Prof. Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University; Prof. Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University; and Washington State Rep. Tarra Simmons,the first former incarceree to win state office.

Highlights from the symposium: 

  • Welcome from Harry Frank Guggenheim President Daniel F. Wilhelm
  • Crime Trends 2020-2021: Leading U.S. criminologists and analysts discuss crime trends, including the homicide spike, the impact of COVID-19, and the resurgence of far-right extremist violence. Moderator: Stephen Handelman, Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Speakers: Prof. Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, Prof. Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and Prof. Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University. | Watch video 
  • Can the “Progressive” Prosecutor Movement Survive? Current and former prosecutors and a public defender discuss whether prosecutors can be a force for change. Moderator: Marissa Boyers Bluestine, Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School; Speakers: Chesa Boudin, San Francisco District Attorney, John Chisholm, Milwaukee District Attorney, Darcy Covert, Milwaukee District Attorney, and Miriam Krinsky, Founder, Fair and Just Prosecution. | Watch video
  • Conversation with Chiefs: Police chiefs and sheriffs from Virginia, Wisconsin, and Texas discuss how their departments are working to rebuild public trust and manage increasing societal demands placed on their officers. Moderator: Stephen Handelman; Speakers: RaShall Brackney, Charlottesville, Virginia, Chief of Police; Edgardo Garcia, Dallas Chief of Police; and Sheriff David Mahoney, Dane County, Wisconsin, President, National Sheriffs Association. | Watch video
  • Effective Community Policing: A discussion of how community policing has changed and how calls for “defunding the police” might affect local law enforcement practices. Moderator: Joe Domanick, Associate Director, CMCJ; Speakers: Bill Bratton, former NYPD Police Commissioner, and Connie Rice, Founder, the Advancement Project, Los Angeles. | Watch video

For a full recap of the event, including recordings of the panel discussions and speakers’ presentations, visit The Crime Report at John Jay College.

Journalism fellowships and awards

The Foundation awarded fellowships to U.S.-based journalists who cover crime and violence issues to participate in the symposium. 

At the end of the symposium, participants heard from winners of the 2021 Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Journalism. The prizes, administered by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, recognize the previous year’s best print and online justice reporting by a U.S.-based media outlet. 

The reporting staff of ProPublica won in the series category for “The NYPD Files,” an investigation into the New York Police Department that documented how allegations of excessive use of force were handled. The award went to ProPublica reporters Eric Umansky, Joaquin Sapien, Topher Sanders, Mollie Simon, Moiz Syed, Derek Willis, Lena Groeger, Adriana Gallardo, Joshua Kaplan, and Lucas Waldron.

Mississippi Today reporters Anna Wolfe and Michelle Liu, working in partnership with The Marshall Project, won the single story award for their story “Think Debtors Prisons Are a Thing of the Past? Not in Mississippi.” The story revealed that Mississippi’s four so-called “restitution centers” effectively serve as debtors prisons, with some individuals confined for as long as five years while they work at low-wage, and sometimes dangerous, jobs.

Tony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman was named runner-up for a multimedia series on the collaboration of a Texas sheriff’s office with a reality TV show that allegedly led to violent and aggressive tactics.

Washington Post national reporter Hannah Dreier was named runner-up in the single-story category for “Trust and Consequences,” which revealed that therapy sessions with undocumented migrant children were shared with U.S. immigration authorities for possible use in court proceedings against them.

Creating the Illusion of Impending Death: Armed Robbers in Action

Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker

This article appeared in Crimes of Violence, the Spring 1997 edition of TheHFG Review, a Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation publication that examined topics of violence in depth.

Unlike most sorts of street crime, successful armed robberies are never secret or ambiguous. By definition, they require offenders to confront intended victims directly. As David Luckenbill (1981:25) has observed, there is a strong interactional component to armed robbery; offenders and victims must develop “a common definition of the situation” and co-orient their actions to meet the demands of the offense. This does not happen automatically. After all, why should stick-up victims willingly participate in their own fleecing?

It is important to develop a clear understanding of the strategies used by armed robbers to compel the cooperation of would-be victims. Such information could offer citizens some guidance about how best to act and react should they be confronted by a robber. It also could provide policymakers and criminal justice officials with a better appreciation of offenders’ aims and intentions during robberies, thereby enabling them to make more informed crime prevention and sentencing decisions.

In an attempt to learn more about the tactics employed by offenders to commit stick-ups, we located and interviewed 86 currently active armed robbers in St. Louis, Missouri. Armed robbery is a serious problem in St. Louis. In 1994, the year our research began, the city had 6,025 stick-ups reported to the police and ranked second in the nation in robberies per capita. The armed robbers for our study were recruited through the efforts of two field-based informants–an ex-offender, and a small-time heroin dealer and street criminal. Working through chains of street referrals, the field recruiters contacted active armed robbers, convinced them to take part in our project, and assisted us in conducting interviews that lasted up to two hours. In the pages that follow, we report just a small portion of what the offenders said during those interviews, focusing on how they actually commit their offenses.

Approaching the Victim

To be successful, armed robbers must take control of the offense from the start. They immediately have to impose on the interaction a definition favorable to their ends, allowing intended victims no room for negotiation. This typically is accomplished by creating an illusion of impending death.

Robbery itself is an illusion. That’s what it’s about…Here is a person that you stick a gun in his face, they’ve never died, they don’t know how it feels, but the illusion of death causes them to do what you want them to do. (aka Robert Jones)

A large part of creating such an illusion involves catching potential victims off guard; the element of surprise denies them the opportunity to adopt an oppositional stance.

Sometimes people be alert; they be watchin’ so you got to be careful of what you do. You got to be alert…Pretty soon [the intended victim] falls asleep, and then [h]e ain’t even trippin’. He over there lookin’ at some girl…[H]e probably just take his eyes off what he’s doin’, watchin’ out, [which is] what he’s supposed to be doin’, and just turn his head on some girls. And [the stick-up] be on. (aka Andrew)

The offenders in our sample employ two different methods to approach would-be victims without arousing their suspicion. The first method involves using stealth or speed to sneak up on unwitting prey.

[Whoever I am going to rob. I] just come up on you. You could be going to your car. If you are facing this way, I want to be on your blind side. If you are going this way, I want to be on that side where I can get up on you [without you noticing me] and grab you: “This is a robbery, motherfucker, don’t make it no murder!” I kind of like shake you. That’s my approach. (aka Richard L. Brown)

The second method involves “managing a normal appearance” (Luckenbill, 1981:29). The offenders’ aim is to fit into the social setting such that victims see their presence as normal and non-threatening, thereby allowing them to get close enough for a surprise attack.

Well, if I’m walking, say you got something that I want, I might come up there [and say], “Do you have the time?” or “Can I get a light from you?” something like that. “Yeah, it’s three o’clock.” By then I’m up on you, getting what I want. (aka Loco)

The method chosen to approach potential victims typically is dictated more by situational factors than by the idiosyncratic preferences of individual offenders. Depending on the situation, most of the armed robbers are prepared to use either speed and stealth or the presentation of a non-threatening self to move within striking range of their victims. The offender quoted below, for example, reported that he and his partners usually initiate their commercial stick-ups simply by charging through the front door of the establishment, ski masks pulled down and guns drawn.

When I approach the door [of a would-be commercial target] generally we got ski masks that rolls up into a skull cap; it’s a skull cap right now and as we get to the door, right prior to walking in the door, we pull our masks down. Once we come in, we got these masks down [so] we got to come in pulling our weapons, might even have them out prior to going in, just concealed. As soon as we pull those masks down, we are committed [because our intention is obvious]. (aka Robert Gibson)

He added, however, that circumstances occasionally require them to enter intended targets posing as customers. Doing so helps them to avoid tipping their hand too early, which is crucial in situations where the victim is likely to be armed.

Say for instance [the target is] a tavern and the guy behind the bar…might be the kind of guy that got a pistol. Most bartenders and most people that’s cashing checks, they got pistols on them. Believe me, they got pistols…So in that particular situation, you got to…get in the door before you go into motion because you got to know where they are at. You’ve got to make sure that you’ve got a real chance to get up on them and make it not worth their risk to try to reach the pistol [before you betray your intentions]. (aka Robert Gibson)

Regardless of the manner in which the offenders make their approach, the aim almost invariably is the same: to “establish co-presence” with the victim without betraying their intentions (Luckenbill, 1981:29). This gives would-be victims little opportunity to recognize the danger and to take steps to repel the attack. Not only is this far safer for the offenders, it also puts them in a strong position when it comes to compelling the victim’s immediate cooperation.

Announcing the Crime

By announcing a stick-up, armed robbers commit themselves irrevocably to the offense. Any semblance of normality has been shattered; from this point onward, the victim will act and react in the knowledge that a robbery is being committed. The offenders we interviewed saw this as the “make or break” moment. The challenge for them was “to dramatize with unarguable clarity that the situation ha[d] suddenly and irreversibly been transformed into a crime” (Katz, 1988:176). In effecting this transformation, they seek to establish dominance over their intended prey, thereby placing themselves in a position to dictate the terms of the unfolding interaction.

When I first come up on [my victims], I might scare them, but then I calm them down. It’s a control thing. If you can get a person to listen to you, you can get them to do just about anything…That’s the way the world is made. (aka Tony Wright)

Most of the offenders said that they typically open their armed robberies with a demand that the would-be victim stop and listen to them.

I say [to the victim], “Look here, hey, just hold up right where you at! Don’t move! Don’t say nothing!” (aka James Minor)

They often couple this demand with an unambiguous declaration of their predatory intentions.

[I tell my victims], “It’s a robbery! Don’t nobody move!” (aka John Lee)

That declaration, in turn, usually is backed by a warning about the dire consequences of failing to do as they instruct.

[I say to the victim], “This is a robbery, don’t make it a murder! It’s a robbery, don’t make it a murder!” (aka Wallie Cleaver)

All of the above pronouncements are intended to “soften up” victims; to inform them that they are about to be robbed and to convince them that they are not in a position to resist.

Having seized initial control of the interaction, offenders then must let victims know what is expected of them. As one armed robber reminded us: “You have to talk to victims to get them to cooperate…They don’t know what to do, whether to lay down, jump over the counter, dance, or whatever.” This information typically is communicated to victims in the form of short, sharp orders laced with profanity and, often, racial epithets.

[I say to victims], “Hey motherfucker, give me your shit! Move slow and take everything out of your pockets!” (aka James Love)

[I grab my victims and say], “Take it off girl! Nigger, come up off of it!” (aka Libbie Jones)

The “expressive economy” with which the offenders issue instructions can in part be accounted for by a desire to keep victims off balance by demonstrating an ominous insensitivity to their precarious emotional state (see Katz, 1988:177). Clearly, the swearing and racial putdowns help to reinforce this impression.

Almost all of the offenders typically used a gun to announce their stick-ups. They recognized that displaying a firearm usually obviated the need to do much talking. One put it this way: “A gun kinda speaks for itself.” Most of them believed that “big, ugly guns” such as 9MMs or 45s were the best weapons for inducing cooperation.

[The 9MM] got that look about it like it gonna kill you. It talk for itself: “I’m gonna kill you.” Looking at a 9 pointed at you, that’s what goes through your head: “He gonna kill me if I don’t give him this money.” (aka Prauch)

In practice, however, many of the armed robbers actually carried somewhat smaller firearms because they were more easily concealed and simpler to handle.

I like the 32 because it’s like a 38, small, easy and accessible. And it will knock [the victim] down if you have to use it. (aka Bob Jones)

A few offenders maintained that very small calibre pistols (e.g., 22s, 25s) made poor robbery weapons because many potential victims were not afraid of them.

[With] 22s or 25s people gonna be like, “Man, he using this little gun. I ain’t worried.” A 22 is real little, they gonna be, “Man, that ain’t gonna do nothing but hurt me. Give me a little sting.” (aka Syco)

That said, the majority of respondents felt that even the smallest handguns were big enough to intimidate most people. As one observed: “A person’s gonna fear any kind of gun you put in their face. So it don’t matter [what you use]. If it’s a gun, it’s gonna put fear in you.”

The dilemma faced by offenders in relying on a gun to induce fear is that the strategy might work too well. Jack Katz (1988) has noted that the display of a firearm can easily be misinterpreted by victims as the precursor to an offense far more serious than robbery (e.g., rape, kidnapping, murder). Offenders are keen to avoid such misinterpretations because they can stun victims into a state of incomprehension or convince them that determined resistance represents their only chance of survival. When armed offenders warn victims–“This is a robbery, don’t make it a murder!”–they are doing more than issuing a credible death threat. Paradoxically, they also are seeking to reassure the victims that submission will not put their lives in jeopardy.

Transferring the Goods

No doubt the most difficult aspect of pulling off an armed robbery involves managing the transfer of goods. The difficulty inheres in the fact that offenders must keep victims under strict control while, at the same time, attempting to make sure that they have gotten everything worth taking. What is more, all of this must be accomplished as quickly as possible. The longer the stick-up lasts, the more risk offenders run of being discovered by police or passers-by.

The armed robbers we talked to used two different strategies to manage the transfer of goods. The first involved simply ordering victims to hand over their possessions.

I tell [my victims], “Man, if you don’t want to die, give me your money! If you want to survive, give me your money! I’m not bullshitting!” So he will either go in his back pocket and give me the wallet or the woman will give me her purse. (aka Tony Brown)

By making victims responsible for the transfer of goods, the offenders are able to devote their undivided attention to watching for signs of danger.

I rather for [victims] to give [their valuables] to me because I have to be alert. If they reach for something, I’ll have to shoot them. (aka K-Money)

There is, however, one serious drawback to giving victims responsibility for the transfer; it is difficult to know whether they really have turned over all of their valuables. Recognizing this, many of the offenders employed tough talk and a fierce demeanor to discourage victims from attempting to shortchange them.

You say, “Is that everything?” You can kinda tell if they lyin’ sometimes: “That’s all I got, man, that’s all!” You’ll say, “You’re lyin’, man, you lyin’!” and just make them think that you’re getting pissed because he’s lying to you. So basically you got this gun [pointed] at they head, so sometimes it be like, “Okay, I got some more.” (aka Damon Jones)

A few of them went so far as to rough up their victims, especially those who appeared confused or hesitant, to reinforce the message that holding something back would be a risky proposition.

Well, if [the victim] hesitates like that, undecided, you get a little aggressive and you push ’em. Let them know you mean business. I might take [the] pistol and crack their head with it. “Come on with that money and quit bullcrapping or else you gonna get into some real trouble!” Normally when they see you mean that kind of business they…come on out with it. (aka Burle)

But most of the offenders who allowed victims to hand over their own possessions simply accepted what was offered and made good their escape. As one explained: “You just got to be like, ‘Well, it’s cool right here what I got.’ [W]hen you get too greedy, that’s when [bad] stuff starts to happen.”

The second strategy used by the armed robbers to accomplish the transfer of goods involved taking the victims’ possessions from them without waiting for what was offered.

I get [the victim’s money] because everybody not gonna give you all they got. They gonna find some kind of way to keep from giving it all. (aka Richard L. Brown)

A number of the offenders who preferred this strategy were reluctant to let victims empty their own pockets for fear that they were carrying a concealed weapon.

I don’t let nobody give me nothing. Cause if you let somebody go in they pockets, they could pull out a gun, they could pull out anything. You make sure they are where you can see their hands at all times. (aka Cooper)

To outsiders, these offenders may appear to be greatly overestimating the risk of encountering an armed victim. Such a perspective, however, betrays a respectable, middle-class upbringing. In the desperate inner-city neighborhoods in which almost all of the armed robbers reside, and in which many of them ply their trade, weapons are a ubiquitous feature of everyday life.

As already noted, all of the crime commission strategies adopted by the offenders are intended, at least in part, to minimize the possibility of victim resistance. Generally speaking, these strategies work very well. Nevertheless, almost all of the armed robbers we talked to said that they occasionally encountered victims who steadfastly refused to comply with their demands.

[O]n the parking lot, if you grab somebody and say, “This is a robbery, don’t make it a murder!” I’ve had it happen that [the victim just says], “Well, you got to kill me then.” (aka Richard L. Brown)

Faced with a recalcitrant victim, most of the offenders responded with severe, but non-lethal, violence in the hope of convincing the person to cooperate. Often this violence involved smacking or beating the victim about the head with a pistol.

It’s happened [that some of my victims initially refuse to hand over their money, but] you would be surprised how cooperative a person will be once he been smashed across the face with a 357 Magnum. (aka Tony Wright)

Occasionally, however, a robbery involved shooting the victim in the leg or some other spot unlikely to prove fatal.

[If the person refuses to do what I say] most of the time I just grab my pistol, take the clip out and just slap ’em. If I see [the victim] trying to get tough, then sometimes I just straight out have to shoot somebody, just shoot ’em. I ain’t never shot nobody in the head or nothing, nowhere that I know would kill ’em, just shoot them in they leg. Just to let them know that I’m for real [and that they should] just come up off the stuff. (aka Cooper)

While a majority of the armed robbers preferred to use non-lethal violence to subdue resistant victims, several of them admitted to having been involved in fatal encounters in the past. One of the female offenders, for instance, described how she had watched from the car while one of her male companions shot and killed an uncooperative robbery victim.

We was in the car and, I didn’t get out this time, one of the dudes got out. The [victim], he wasn’t gonna let nobody rob him: “Nigger, you got to kill me! You got to kill me!” And that’s what happened to him. Just shot him in the head. It was like, God!, I had never seen that. When [my accomplice] shot him, it wasn’t like he was rushing to get away. He shot him, walked back to the car, put the gun back up under the seat and just, you know, we watched [the victim] when he fell, blood was coming out of his mouth, he was shaking or something. (aka Ne-Ne)

Such incidents are rare; few of the offenders entered into armed robberies intending to kill or seriously injure their prey. Indeed, some admitted that they probably would abandon an intended offense rather than use deadly force to subdue an uncooperative victim.

I really ain’t gonna shoot nobody. I think a lot of people are like that. I wouldn’t shoot nobody myself; if they gave me too much of a problem, I might just take off. (aka Mike J.)

That said, it must be noted that armed robbers typically are acting under intense emotional pressure to generate some fast cash by any means necessary in an interactional environment shot through with uncertainty and danger. Is it any wonder that the slightest hint of victim resistance may provoke some of them to respond with potentially deadly force? As one observed: “When you’re doing stuff like this, you just real edgy; you’ll pull the trigger at anything, at the first thing that go wrong.”

Making an Escape

Once offenders have accomplished the transfer of goods, it only remains for them to make their getaway. Doing that, however, is more difficult than it might appear. Up to this point, the offenders have managed to keep victims in check by creating a convincing illusion of impending death. But the maintenance of that illusion becomes increasingly more difficult as the time comes for offenders to make good their escape. How can they continue to control victims who are becoming physically more distant from them?

In broad terms, the offenders can effect a getaway in one of two ways; they can leave the scene themselves or they can stay put and force the victim to flee. Other things being equal, most of them preferred to be the ones to depart. Before doing so, however, they had to make sure that the victim would not attempt to follow them or to raise the alarm. A majority of the offenders responded to this need by using verbal threats designed to extend the illusion of impending death just long enough for them to escape unobserved.

I done left people in gangways and alleys and I’ve told them, “If you come out of this alley, I’m gonna hurt you. Just give me 5 or 10 minutes to get away. If you come out of this alley in 3 or 4 minutes, I’m gonna shoot the shit out of you!” (aka Bennie Simmons)

A few offenders, however, attempted to prolong this illusion indefinitely by threatening to kill their victims if they ever mentioned the stick-up to anyone.

I done actually took [the victim’s] ID and told them, “If you call the police, I got your address and everything. I know where you stay at and, if you call the police, I’m gonna come back and kill you!” (aka Melvin Walker)

Some of the armed robbers were uncomfortable relying on verbal threats to dissuade their prey from pursuing them. Instead, they took steps to make it difficult or impossible for victims to leave the crime scene by tying them up or incapacitating them through injury.

[I hit my victims before I escape so as to] give them less time to call for the police. Especially if it’s somebody else’s neighborhood [and] we don’t know how to get out. You hit them with a bat just to slow his pace. If you hit him in the leg with a bat, he can’t walk for a minute; he gonna be limping, gonna try to limp to a payphone. By then it be 15 or 20 minutes, we be hitting the highway and on our way back to the southside where our neighborhood is. (aka Antwon Wright)

While most of the offenders wanted to be the first to leave the crime scene, a number of them preferred to order the victim to flee instead. This allowed the offenders to depart in a calm, leisurely manner, thereby reducing the chances of drawing attention to themselves.

I try not to have to run away. A very important thing that I have learned is that when you run away, too many things can happen running away. Police could just be cruising by and see you running down the street. I just prefer to be able to walk away, which is one of the reasons why I tend, rather than to make an exit, I tell the victim to walk and don’t look back: “Walk away, and walk fast!” When they walk, I can make my exit walking. (aka Slick Going)

What is more, forcing the victim to leave first permitted the offenders to escape without worrying about being attacked from behind–a crucial consideration for those unwilling or unable to incapacitate their prey prior to departure.

[Afterward,] I will tell [the victim] to run. You wouldn’t just get the stuff and run because he may have a gun and shoot you while you are turning around running or something like that. (aka Damon Jones)

Beyond such instrumental concerns, several of the armed robbers indicated that they forced the victim to flee for expressive reasons as well; it demonstrated their continuing ability to dominate and control the situation. The clearest example of this involved an offender who routinely taunted his victims by ordering them to leave the scene in humiliating circumstances: “I like laughing at what I do, like, I told…one dude to take off his clothes. I just do a whole bunch of stuff. Sometimes I’ll make a dude crawl away. I’ll tell him to crawl all the way up the street. And I’ll sit there in the alley watching him crawl and crack up laughing.”


In short, the active armed robbers we interviewed typically compel the cooperation of intended victims through the creation of a convincing illusion of impending death. They create this illusion by catching would-be victims off guard, and then using tough talk, a fierce demeanor, and the display of a deadly weapon to scare them into a state of unquestioning compliance. The goal is to maintain the illusion for as long as possible without having to make good on the threat. This is easier said than done. Armed robbery is an interactive event and, for any number of reasons, victims may fail to behave in the expected fashion. When this happens, the offenders usually respond with severe, but non-lethal, violence, relying on brute force to bring victims’ behavior back into line with their expectations. Very few of them want to kill their victims, although some clearly are prepared to resort to deadly force if need be.

Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker are professors in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A book based upon research they conducted while HFG grantees, Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture, has just been published (1997) by Northeastern University Press.


  1. Katz, Jack. 1988. Seductions of Crime. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Luckenbill, David. 1981. “Generating Compliance: The Case of Robbery.” Urban Life 10:25-46.

Alcohol: The Aggression Elixir?

Peter Giancola

This article appeared in The Biology of Aggression, the Spring 1999 edition of The HFG Review, a Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation publication that examined topics of violence in depth.

There are those who argue that alcohol is a very strong “elixir” for aggressive behavior—that alcohol causes aggression. We have all known or heard about people who, when sober, are fun-loving, sociable, and well-tempered, but, after a few drinks, undergo a “transformation of personality” characterized by loudness, anger, belligerence, provocation, and sometimes violence. Research evidence tends to support the alcohol-aggression link, indicating that alcohol consumption is strongly linked to verbal aggression, aggressive threats, family violence, marital aggression, violence-related emergency-room visits, child abuse, firearm use, sexual aggression, homicide, and suicide. A well-designed study of alcohol involvement in violence found that in 40-50% of violent incidents, either the victim, the assailant, or both had been drinking (Pernanen, 1991). While there is considerable variability among studies in estimated magnitude of alcohol involvement, some suggest rates of alcohol presence at the time of offending as high as 86% for homicide offenders, 72% for robbery offenders, 60% for sexual offenders, 70% for suicide attempters, 57% for marital violence perpetrators, and 54% for child molesters (Roizen, 1993).

However, there is another side to this coin. There are also the stories of people who behave quite aggressively without the help of alcohol and those who, no matter how much they drink, will never utter an angry word or raise a hand to anyone—alcohol just seems to facilitate joviality, emotional warmth, or sleep in these people. Thus, it may be more accurate to say that alcohol is an aggression elixir only in some persons. Clearly then, the task for researchers is to determine what traits characterize persons who are most at risk for becoming violent while under the effects of alcohol. Identifying those most at risk will help better elucidate the causes of alcohol-related violence and it will also help researchers craft better prevention and treatment interventions.

Measuring the Relationship | Before attempting to delineate a “risk profile” for alcohol-related aggression, it is important to discuss some different approaches to assessing the alcohol-aggression relationship. One very well-known approach involves simply asking people about their past aggressive behavior and whether or not alcohol was involved. A number of widely used self-report and interview-type formats have been designed to record these behaviors.

A second approach, not as well known, is an in vivo assessment of the actual behavior of physical aggression. Such an assessment almost always occurs in a laboratory setting. Most studies that have measured aggression in such a manner have used the Taylor Aggression Paradigm (TAP; Taylor, 1967) the Point Subtraction Aggression Paradigm (PSAP; Cherek, 1981), or a modified version of one of these protocols. The tap involves instructing research subjects that they are competing against another, unseen person on a reaction-time task. Following a winning trial, subjects administer an electric shock to their opponent; following a losing trial, they receive a shock. In actuality, no opponent exists and the experimenter administers the shocks to the subjects according to a predetermined win/lose order. Aggression is operationalized as the average shock intensity subjects select for their opponent during an experiment. Some modified versions of the TAP also include shock duration as a measure of aggression. In the PSAP, subjects are led to believe that they are competing against another person on a task in which they can earn points that are later redeemable for money but that they also may have points taken away by their opponent. In most versions of this paradigm, subjects can either press a particular button 100 times to earn a point or press a different button 10 times to subtract a point from their opponent. Aggression is measured as the number of times the point-subtraction button is pressed. (For a full description and evaluation of these paradigms see Giancola and Chermack 1998.)

Some have argued that responses in these laboratory paradigms do not generalize to aggression in the “real world.” An abundance of data shows this criticism to be wholly unfounded. The validity of these procedures has been established in numerous ways. For example, shock-level selection on the TAP correlates significantly with self-report measures of physical assault, behavioral hostility, and outwardly directed anger. That aggression rather than a related disposition or behavior is being measured is shown in the lack of correlation between shock selection and measures of guilt, suspicion, resentment, inwardly directed anger, helping, and competition. Additional data supporting the validity of these paradigms come from studies showing that adolescents whose teachers rate them high on aggressiveness are more aggressive in a version of the TAP than adolescents with low ratings. Violent offenders respond more aggressively on the PSAP than do nonviolent controls. A recent comprehensive review of studies that have used laboratory measures of aggression concluded that the TAP, the PSAP, and their modified versions are safe, effective, and valid measures of aggression for both men and women (Giancola and Chermack, 1998).

Alcohol and Aggression | A wealth of studies, in numerous laboratories in North America and in Europe, have examined the alcohol-aggression relation using the paradigms described above. This work has documented a very robust and reliable finding: Persons who are given an alcohol beverage exhibit more aggressive behavior than those who receive a nonalcohol or a placebo beverage (for review see Chermack and Giancola 1997). Placebo groups are used to rule out the possibility that it is not the pharmacological properties of alcohol that facilitate aggression but the mere belief that alcohol has been consumed. Placebo manipulations involve giving a nonalcohol beverage and then informing the drinker in a convincing way (and the credibility of the ruse can be tested) that she or he has ingested alcohol. Then, if subjects who received alcohol are more aggressive than those who received a placebo, and if those who received a placebo are no more aggressive than those who received no alcohol (and were told that they received no alcohol), it can be concluded that the belief that alcohol has been consumed plays little role in the expression of aggression.

Sketching a “Risk Profile” | In summary then, experimental data show that acute alcohol consumption, and not the belief that alcohol has been consumed, significantly increases the probability of aggressive behavior. It is not the case, however, that alcohol invariably causes aggression. Not all persons who commit an aggressive act are intoxicated, and alcohol does not lead to aggression in all persons who ingest it. In other words, alcohol is neither a necessary nor a sufficient agent in the elicitation of aggressive behavior. Rather, alcohol-related aggression is the product of individual characteristics and contextual variables interacting with alcohol pharmacodynamics.

Executive Cognitive Functioning (ECF) | ECF is a higher-order cognitive construct that covers planning, initiation, and regulation of goal-directed behavior. Cognitive abilities included in this construct are control of attention, strategic goal planning, abstract reasoning, cognitive flexibility, hypothesis generation, temporal response sequencing, and the ability to organize and adaptively utilize information contained in working memory. The prefrontal cortex and its subcortical circuits are thought to be the neurological substrates that subserve ECF. People with psychiatric disorders that sometimes entail aggressive behavior, such as antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy, conduct disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, all show poorer performance on neuropsychological measures of ECF. Low ECF capacity has been linked to increased aggression in laboratory tests in preadolescents and young adult males, increased disruptive, delinquent, and physically aggressive behavior in adolescent females, and increased mother and teacher reports of aggression and conduct problems. It has been hypothesized that low ECF facilitates the expression of aggression by decreasing behavioral inhibition and interfering with the ability to generate alternative, nonaggressive responses in provocative situations. It is well known that acute alcohol consumption detrimentally affects cognitive functioning in general. However, its predominant disruptive effects are on ECF. Neuroimaging studies have corroborated this finding by demonstrating that acute alcohol consumption reduces glucose metabolism predominantly in the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that acute alcohol consumption disrupts ECF, which then facilitates aggression. Recall, however, that alcohol does not facilitate aggression in all people. It is thus reasonable to suggest that the proposed process is more likely to occur in those who already have low ECF.

Alcohol Expectancies | Alcohol expectancies are beliefs about the effects of alcohol on behavior (different from placebo effects). Some research suggests that intoxicated aggression results, in part, from the belief that alcohol increases aggression. It is well known that people vary in their belief that alcohol increases arousal, power, assertiveness, verbal aggression, and physical aggression. Significantly, self-report studies indicate that the association between alcohol consumption and aggression is stronger among individuals who expect alcohol to increase aggression. Only one published laboratory study, using the TAP, related the effects of alcohol on subjects’ aggression to their beliefs about the effects of alcohol on aggression. Results indicated that under conditions of high provocation, intoxicated subjects with high expectancies about the effects of alcohol on aggression were more aggressive.

Dispositional Aggressivity | Dispositional aggressivity—a person’s typical level of aggressiveness across a range of situations—is strongly related to self-reported husband-to-wife violence and violent behavior in college males. In addition, as noted earlier, dispositionally aggressive individuals, such as those with antisocial personality or conduct disorder, show low levels of ECF. Only one study has assessed the combined effects of acute alcohol consumption and dispositional aggressivity on aggression as measured by the TAP. Acute alcohol consumption increased aggression in men with high levels of dispositional aggressivity but not in those with low or moderate levels.

Drinking History | Quantity of past alcohol consumption is positively related to self-reported aggression in both male and female social drinkers. Theory suggests that increased alcohol consumption and aggressive behavior are both components of an overarching construct of “deviant behavior.” However, the underlying mechanisms, or causal dynamics, of that construct are not known. Moreover, one laboratory study found that acute alcohol consumption increased aggression on the TAP only in males with low rather than moderate or high levels of past-year drinking. The authors hypothesized that alcohol’s detrimental effects on cognition were greater in those with a low tolerance for alcohol compared with those with a higher tolerance.

Biochemistry | Both animal and human research have demonstrated a positive relation between testosterone levels and physical aggression. A recent study found that healthy young males with high levels of testosterone, measured from saliva, were more aggressive on the TAP than those with low levels. Another study reported an increase in aggressive responding on the PSAP subsequent to the administration of testosterone cypionate to anabolic steroid users. Heightened impulsive aggressive behavior has also been related to a low level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Interestingly, recent studies using the TAP and the PSAP have demonstrated increased aggression in healthy males who received a tryptophan-depleted dietary mixture. Tryptophan is the biochemical precursor for serotonin; its dietary depletion leads to lowered brain serotonin levels.

Theorists have argued that serotonin is involved, in part, in the inhibition of behavior. As such, it may be that alcohol affects the serotonin system in such a manner as to impair its ability to properly inhibit behavior, including aggression. Pertinently, there is some evidence to show that low serotonin may affect aggression by interfering with ECF. Acute alcohol consumption leads to an initial increase, and then decrease, of serotonin, which may promote aggression. Others have argued that the serotonin-depleting effect of alcohol may be more profound in some people. However, these explanations are highly speculative because laboratory studies show that alcohol’s aggression-inducing effects occur quite quickly, that is, when serotonin levels are supposedly still rising. In fact, a recent study indicated that a given blood alcohol level is more likely to cause aggression when the blood alcohol concentration is rising (shortly after consuming a few drinks) as opposed to when it is falling (during the detoxification process). Based on this, it is clear that a great deal of research is still needed to elucidate the complex interactions of alcohol and serotonin in the expression of aggressive behavior. In addition, it has been suggested that alcohol may also facilitate aggression through its effects on brain receptors for another neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). It is believed that alcohol acts at the same receptor complex as sedative drugs, such as the benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Xanax). Laboratory studies and clinical reports indicate that these “sedatives” actually tend to facilitate aggressive reactions by reducing anxiety, including fear of punishment. GABA functions, in part, to suppress fearful responses to punishment and fear-related cues. Alcohol increases chloride transmission at the GABA receptor complex, which augments GABA neurotransmission and thus may facilitate aggression by reducing fear.

Alcohol, the Person, and the Situation | I have neglected to discuss social and contextual factors, although they are clearly important determinants of whether alcohol will, or will not, facilitate aggression. Even a high-risk profile for alcohol-induced aggression will generate aggression only in certain contexts. However, because more research has been conducted on social and situational influences than on person or trait variables, I have stressed the development of risk profiles for alcohol-related aggression that focus on the person. To summarize, people with low ECF, strong beliefs that alcohol increases aggression, high dispositional aggressivity, a heavy (or possibly light) drinking history, high testosterone, or low serotonin levels, or any combination of these traits, will be more likely to exhibit aggression under the influence of alcohol than those without these vulnerabilities.

It should be made clear that the risk factors described here do not comprise an exhaustive list. Other traits that are potentially important include age, perspective-taking, self-awareness, negative affect, temperament, emotionality, sensation seeking, anxiety, irritability, hostility, frustration tolerance, impulsivity, psychopathology, early physical abuse, perceived self-esteem, tolerance and sensitivity to alcohol, and physiological reactivity to stress. There is no single risk profile for intoxicated aggression. Identifying key vulnerabilities is important because it will provide researchers with a better understanding of the causal structure of the alcohol-aggression relation. With such an understanding, scientists will be in a better position to develop effective prevention and treatment interventions.


  1. Cherek, D. 1981. Effects of smoking different doses of nicotine on human aggressive behavior. Psychopharmacology 75: 339-345.
  2. Chermack, S., and P. Giancola. 1997. The relationship between alcohol and aggression: An integrated biopsychosocial approach. Clinical Psychology Review 6: 621-649.
  3. Giancola, P., and S. Chermack. 1998. Construct validity of laboratory aggression paradigms: A response to Tedeschi and Quigley (1996). Aggression and Violent Behavior 3: 237-253.
  4. Pernanen, K. 1991. Alcohol in Human Violence. New York: Guilford Press.
  5. Roizen, J. 1993. Issues in the epidemiology of alcohol and violence. In S. Martin (ed.) Alcohol and Interpersonal Violence: Fostering Multidisciplinary Perspectives (NIAAA research monograph No. 24, NIH Publication No. 93-3496, pp. 3-36). Rockville, MD: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  6. Taylor, S. 1967. Aggressive behavior and physiological arousal as a function of provocation and the tendency to inhibit aggression. Journal of Personality 35: 297-310.

Serotonin and Impulsive Aggression: Not So Fast

Joel Wallman

This article appeared in The Biology of Aggression, the Spring 1999 edition of The HFG Review, a Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation publication that examined topics of violence in depth.

The quest to root violent criminality in organic shortcomings has a long and, viewed with the wisdom of hindsight, sometimes silly history. Lombroso’s diagnostic taxonomy of criminal physical features, the phrenology of Gall, Kretschmer’s body typing and, more recently, the attempt to link the XYY or “supermale” genetic constitution to criminality are textbook cases of fruitless efforts to explain bad behavior as the outcome of bad biology.

Contemporary endeavors are, on the whole, far more sound in their scientific methods, if thus far not much more compelling. Studies linking persistent impulsive aggression to deficits or excesses of various juices of the brain (dopamine, GABA, MAOA), the nether regions (testosterone, estrogen), or parts in between (adrenal steroids) have yielded occasionally suggestive but generally equivocal findings. The same applies to research on areas of the brain, the most traveled in this search being the frontal and temporal lobes, amygdala, and hypothalamus.

One promising exception is the neurotransmitter serotonin. Dozens of studies have found that people with documented histories of impulsive violence have, on the average, a reduction in function of the serotonin system relative to people without such a profile. This has been found whether serotonin function is assessed by lumbar spinal tap of cerebrospinal fluid to determine the quantity of serotonin’s metabolic byproduct or by less direct measures, such as the magnitude of biochemical response to ingestion of a substance that increases serotonin production.

These and other methods are quite removed from direct assay of serotonin function in the brain, but the correlation between serotonin deficit and impulsive violence, both self- and other-directed, is a recurrent finding nonetheless. Moreover, studies in non-human animals in which serotonin levels were experimentally reduced through chemical intervention found an increase in aggressive behavior (compared to control animals subjected to identical delivery of an inert substance), suggesting that the correlation found in human research reflects a true causal relationship.

In the serotonin deficit, then, we seem to have a constitutional flaw underlying the syndrome of impulsive violent behavior. If serotonin abnormalities are truly linked in a specific way to aggression as opposed to behavior problems more generally, then we have a window into not just pathologies of aggression but the normal neurobiology of aggression as well. This discovery also provides a basis for intelligent conjecture about the selective forces governing the evolution of both serotonin and aggression in animals in general, primates more specifically, and humans in particular.

Yet one needn’t be a student of neurotransmitters to wonder about the specificity of the connection between serotonin and aggression. A regular reader of New York Times articles on human behavior and health, for example, might well be troubled in attempting to collate the implicit claim that serotonin is the “aggression chemical” with reports that underactive serotonin circuits are also the cause of migraines (July 24, 1996, section C, p. 8), extreme shyness (May 18, 1999, section C, p. 1), obsessive-compulsive disorder (February 16, 1997, section 13CN, p. 3), anxiety and pessimism (November 29, 1996, section A, p. 1), and “restless leg” syndrome (night cramps) (April 10, 1996, section C, p. 10). A survey of popular books on the virtues of keeping one’s serotonin up will reveal that a deficit of this substance is responsible for craving and hence addiction to gambling, drugs, sex, and food (The Craving Brain, Ronald Ruden and Marcia Byalick); that, in addition to controlling emotion, serotonin is in charge of “intellect” (Naturally Slim & Powerful, Philip Lipetz and Jean Zevnik); and that serotonin is the culprit in insomnia (5-HTP: The Natural Way to Boost Serotonin and Overcome Depression, Obesity and Insomnia, Michael T. Murray). Combine this litany of affliction with the knowledge that tens of millions of people are being prescribed Prozac, a serotonin enhancer, on the apparently well-established medical belief that depression derives from—yes—a serotonin deficit, and, unless all of these reports and claims are dismissed as baseless, one is justified in concluding that a serotonin shortage manifests itself in a congeries of emotional and behavioral problems, including but by no means limited to aggression.

That conclusion is certainly consonant with the fact that serotonergic neurons, which reside in the brainstem, project their axons into many and functionally diverse regions of the brain, including the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, cerebellum, and temporal and prefrontal regions of the cerebral cortex. It would be surprising, given this wide ramification, if abnormalities of the serotonin system affected aggression in a specific way.

Just how sound are the numerous studies reporting a specific association between diminished serotonin function and violent behavior? A meta-analysis of this literature by Balaban and colleagues (1996) is illuminating. From 70 studies, Balaban chose 39 that provided sufficient information for an analysis employing the variables Balaban thought pertinent to answering the question. The subjects in these studies fall into three categories: violent psychiatric patients, nonviolent psychiatric or neurological patients, and normal, healthy control subjects. Not all studies employed all three groups, but a typical finding of those that did was reduced serotonin in the violent psychiatric group compared to both the nonviolent patients and normal controls, with no difference between the latter two, indicating that serotonin deficiency is associated specifically with violent psychiatric conditions rather than with serious psychiatric problems in general.

However, there are non-psychiatric sources of variability in serotonin level, and few of the serotonin studies take them into account (i.e., statistically control for them) in all subject categories used. In particular, serotonin (actually 5-HIAAA, its main break-down product) measured at the lumbar level through spinal tap is lower in males, goes up with age, and declines with stature. (Serotonin diffuses out of the brain into the cerebrospinal fluid. From there, most of it is transported to the bloodstream; the fraction making it down as far as the lumbar region decreases with increasing spinal length).

Using those studies in the set of 39 that provided information on height, age, and sex of normal controls, Balaban computed the effects of those variables alone on serotonin level. These values were then used to adjust the measured serotonin levels in all studies for all subject categories for which mean height and age and male-female ratio were published. Because the three subject categories happened to consistently differ in these traits, correcting for these non-psychiatric determinants of serotonin level yields results that are quite different from what is typically reported: violent psychiatric patients do indeed have somewhat lower levels than normal controls, but so do the non-violent psychiatric and neurological patients, and the psychiatric groups do not differ from each other. In short, people with a history of being in an institution or under psychiatric or neurological treatment have lower levels of serotonin than normal nonpatients.

In addition to the reasons adduced above for questioning the usefulness of low serotonin as a marker for impulsive aggression, there are reports in the scientific literature that, while far from refuting the claim that low serotonin increases impulsive aggression, contradict it and thus warrant weighing in the balance. These are not simply studies that fail to find a relationship between low serotonin and aggression—unless the relationship were extremely strong in a statistical sense, one would expect a certain number of studies to come up empty by chance even if the relationship were generally valid. One kind of contradictory finding is the observation in at least two studies that highly aggressive children evince not a reduction but an increase in serotonin function (Castellanos et al. 1994; Halperin et al. 1994). And there is the much-cited discovery in a large Dutch family of an association between a genetic deficiency of the enzyme MAOA and impulsive violent behavior (Brunner et al. 1993). What has gone unremarked on in the discussion of this finding (which, predictably, was heralded in the non-technical media as the revelation of a “gene for aggression”) is the problem it poses for the other major putative organic cause of abnormal aggression, serotonin. For MAOA is the enzyme that, among other functions, breaks down serotonin, which means that the affected men in this group would, arguably, have an excessively high level of serotonin. And, finally, the same primate experiments mentioned earlier, which showed that altering serotonin level affects behavior, also provide evidence that serotonin is equally a result of behavior. If the dominant male is removed from a group of vervet monkeys, an aggressive contest for dominance results. The male that ascends to top rank will experience an increase in serotonin level, and the exiled alpha male, if not returned to its group, will undergo a serotonin drop (McGuire and Troisi 1998). To the extent that it is legitimate to extrapolate to humans, this observation calls into question the assumption that serotonin abnormality precedes the behavioral problems with which it has been linked.

The correct inference from all of the foregoing is not that anyone low on the serotonin scale should be a dangerous, depressed, and overweight compulsive gambler, torn between shyness and nymphomania, who would be kept awake at night by their headaches and restless legs even if they didn’t suffer from insomnia. It is rather that serotonin is not a very discriminating marker for violence and that the neurophysiological and neurochemical characteristics that accompany low serotonin—whether as causes, consequences, or both—are not limited to brain regions that govern aggression.

But what if there were no ambiguity about the serotonin-aggression relationship? If it were clearly established that underactive serotonin circuits increased the risk for serious aggressive behavior, and only that risk, what insight would be gained into human violence? Would it help us understand the shocking increase in youth homicide in the United States beginning in the middle 1980s or the decrease of recent years? Would it clarify why the rate of violent crime has declined in New York, Los Angeles, and Tampa but increased in New Orleans and Richmond, why Nevada’s murder rate is 10 times higher than South Dakota’s, or why the U.S. rate is 15 times higher than Britain’s?

The explanation of these facts will come not from research in neurobiology but from understanding economic forces, variation in cultural mores regarding the acceptability of violence, diversity in the kinds and efficacy of means of informal and formal social control, and availability of firearms. A reasonable response to this assertion would be to suggest that individual differences in serotonin could explain why this person rather than the next succumbs to the distinctive mix of violence-promoting influences impinging on a given neighborhood, ethnic group, class, or nation. I am rather pessimistic about the potential of this approach, however. But that may just be the serotonin talking.


  1. Balaban, E., J. S. Alper, and Y. L. Kasamon. 1996. Mean genes and the biology of aggression: A critical review of recent animal and human research. J. Neurogenetics 11: 1-43.
  2. Brunner, H. G., M. Nelen, X. O. Breakefield, H. H. Ropers, and B. A. van Oost. 1993. Abnormal behavior associated with a point mutation in the structural gene for monoamine oxidase A. Science 262: 578-80.
  3. Castellanos, F. X., J. Elia, M. J. Kruesi, C. S. Gulotta, I. N. Mefford, W. Z. Potter, G. F. Ritchie, and J. L. Rapopor. 1994. Cerebrospinal fluid monoamine metabolites in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatry Research 52: 305-16.
  4. Halperin, J. M., V. Sharma, L. J. Siever, S. T. Schwartz, K. Matier, G. Wornell, and J. H. Newcorn. 1994. Serotonergic function in aggressive and nonaggressive boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Psychiatry 151: 243-8.
  5. McGuire, M. and A. Troisi. 1998. Darwinian Psychiatry. New York: Oxford University.

Welcome to the website of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

Sign up here for Foundation news and updates on our programs and research.