The primary cause of violence is deprivation of affectionate touch during infancy and childhood and/or erotic touch during adolescence and adulthood, developmental psychologist James W. Prescott concluded after decades of research into the origins of violence.
Prescott was a health scientist administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development from 1966 to 1980. He created and directed a program there to study the relationship between mother-child bonding and the development of social abilities in adult life.
“I am now convinced that the deprivation of physical sensory pleasure is the principal root cause of violence,” he wrote in a 1975 article titled “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence.”
As evidence Prescott points to studies of lab monkeys, 400 primitive societies with various child-rearing practices, and abused American children. In short, he found the less pleasurable body contact between mother and infant, and the more repressive and punitive a society is toward premarital and extramarital sex, the more violent the society.
“I am convinced that various abnormal social and emotional behaviors resulting from what psychologists call ‘maternal-social’ deprivation … are caused by … the deprivation of body touch, contact, and movement,” Prescott writes.
This lack of somatosensory stimulation “causes of a number of emotional disturbances which include depressive and autistic behaviors, hyperactivity, sexual aberration, drug abuse, violence, and aggression,” he says.
Prescott’s research was inspired by Harry Harlow‘s famous experiments on rhesus monkeys, which established a link between neurotic behavior and isolation from a care-giving mother.
They monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth and raised in individual cages in an animal colony room. They could develop social relationships with the other animals through seeing, hearing, and smelling, but not through touching or movement.
“These and other studies indicate that it is the deprivation of body contact and body movement—not deprivation of the other senses—that produces the wide variety of abnormal emotional behaviors,” Prescott said.
Human infants and children who receive little physical touch or holding develop almost identical abnormal behaviors, such as rocking and head banging, he said.
These and other animal experiments show that pleasure and violence have a reciprocal relationship— the presence of one inhibits the other, Prescott says. “A raging, violent animal will abruptly calm down when electrodes stimulate the pleasure centers of its brain. Likewise, stimulating the violence centers in the brain can terminate the animal’s sensual pleasure and peaceful behavior.”
R. B. Textor’s vook A Cross-Cultural Summary provides some 20,000 statistically significant correlations from a survey of 400 primitive societies.
The survey shows societies that give infants the greatest amount of physical affection were characterized by low theft, low infant physical pain, low religious activity, and negligible or absent killing, mutilating, or torturing of the enemy.
Infant physical affection, or the lack thereof, accurately predicted adult physical violence, or the lack thereof, in 36 of 49 cultures.
In the 13 societies that were exceptions to this rule, Prescott discovered another factor — repression or tolerance of premarital and extramarital sex.
The six societies characterized by both high infant affection and high violence were found to be sexually repressive.
The seven societies characterized by both low infant physical affection and low adult physical violence were all found to be characterized by permissive premarital sexual behaviors.
In short, violence may stem from deprivation of somatosensory pleasure either in infancy or in adolescence.
The percent likelihood of a society being physically violent if it is physically affectionate toward its infants and tolerant of premarital sexual behavior is zero, Prescott points out. “I am not aware of any other developmental variable that has such a high degree of predictive validity.”
Punishment of extra-marital sex is strongly associated with all of the following:
- Large community size
- Small family units
- Class stratification
- Monogamy or Polygyny
- Wives are purchased
- Sexual disability
- Castration anxiety
- Exhibitionistic dancing
- Killing, torturing, mutilating the enemy
- Belief in high god of human morality
American child abuse
University of Colorado psychiatrists Brandt F. Steele and C. B. Pollock, studied child abuse in three generations of families who physically abused their children.
“They found that parents who abused their children were invariably deprived of physical affection themselves during childhood and that their adult sex life was extremely poor. Steele noted that almost without exception the women who abused their children had never experienced orgasm … How many of us feel like assaulting someone after we have just experienced orgasm?” Prescott wrote.
American college students
Prescott surveyed 96 college students to determine whether those with sexually repressive attitudes were more approving of physical violence. Of course the answer was yes.
“Respondents who rejected abortion, responsible premarital sex, and nudity within the family were likely to approve of harsh physical punishment for children and to believe that pain helps build strong moral character,” he wrote. “These respondents were likely to find alcohol and drugs more satisfying than sex.”
These attitudes are reflected in our culture’s acceptance of films that involve sexual violence and rape and rejection of films that involve sexual pleasure, Prescott says. “Apparently, sex with pleasure is immoral and unacceptable, but sex with violence and pain is moral and acceptable.”
“Unlike violence, pleasure seems to be something the world can’t get enough of,” he adds. “People are constantly in search of new forms of pleasure, yet most of our ‘pleasure’ activities appear to be substitutes for the natural sensory pleasures of touching.”