Led by psychiatry professor Michael Rowe GRD ’96 and lawyer and psychology lecturer James Kimmel Jr., the paper was published on Dec. 18 in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. The team found that a “nonjustice” intervention system that involves a nine-step mock trial was effective in reducing an individual’s desire for vengeance, helping prevent violence as a result.

“We can reduce gun violence by either reducing guns or by reducing the motive to use guns,” Kimmel said. “Society seems to want to focus only on the former, which has led to gridlock and limited progress. This study is an attempt to break through this gridlock and focus rather on reducing the desire to kill. We call this ‘motive control’ in contrast to ‘gun control.’”

Rowe agreed that discussions on gun violence rarely address motive control. When motive is addressed, he said, discussions often quickly jump to mental illness, even though there is little evidence that individuals with mental illness are more likely to commit violence than those without mental illness.

Studies reveal that the primary motive behind violence is to retaliate or punish another person for perceived wrongs and injustices, Kimmel said. This desire for revenge activates the same regions in the brain that narcotics do, suggesting that it can be an extremely powerful craving, similar to what a person with substance addiction experiences. This connection can open up a new set of behavioral health approaches to controlling revenge cravings, he said.

According to Kimmel, the study is the first attempt to measure the effectiveness of a violence prevention method designed specifically to target desire for revenge. In this nonjustice system intervention, an individual puts the target of their vengeance on trial and is able to safely gratify the craving for vengeance without acting upon it in real life. Afterwards, the individual can consider alternatives to restore the peace and happiness they lost — without the desire for vengeance weighing on them.

In the trial, a group of people who self-identified as struggling with revenge cravings went through a fictional scenario. For standardization purposes, rather than using each participant’s real experience, the team applied the same scenario to every participant, in which the victim asks a neighbor to watch his dog for him while he is gone but finds out the neighbor has used the dog for a dogfighting ring.

“No scenario is perfect, so if you’re not a dog person, you’re not going to have quite the same reaction, but it’s still a living domestic animal that people recognize as being close to humans,” Rowe said. “It can be a powerful emotional experience. I went through this scenario, and I was outraged even though it’s fictional.”

The participants’ desire for revenge skyrocketed after going through the scenario. They then went through the nonjustice intervention by following the eight traditional steps of a criminal case and an additional final judgment step, taking on the roles of prosecutor, defendant, juror and judge. In the process, they could decide on a harsh sentence, which helped diminish their desire for revenge, Kimmel said.

During the intervention, Rowe said, participants can voice what they think about the transgressor and how the wrong affected their lives. In the process, they can experience a high from punishing the transgressor. However, they eventually find that the high goes away, and they are left in the same situation as before. This gives participants time to reflect on their own motives and realize that seeking justice in the form of vengeance would not make them happy.

By the end of the mock trial, the participants’ desire for revenge had dropped dramatically and dropped even further two weeks later.

According to Rowe, the next plan is to use participants’ own experiences instead of the standardized imaginary scenario and study their responses to the intervention.

Kimmel explained that he developed the nonjustice system based on his own experience. Having been bullied severely when he was young, he said that he became a lawyer so that he could carry out justice in a socially acceptable manner.

In addition to being an effective strategy for motive control, Kimmel said, the intervention is easy to learn and teach and takes about an hour to carry out, whereas normal criminal proceedings may take weeks to years.

Kimmel said that the intervention could be an effective tool to help individuals in the criminal justice system. Many people who have committed violent crimes experience trauma during incarceration and face victimization during it, perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence.

Community members can also use the intervention to prevent violence in their communities, according to Kimmel. They can target individuals who are at high risk of committing violence, including those who have been victims of violence themselves.

Rowe said that existing interventions like anger management and mediation, while useful, are not geared specifically toward the desire for revenge. The addition of nonjustice intervention can be helpful in motive control, he said.

“By intervening at the level of retaliation and revenge, you are stepping in at the level just before other-blaming and homicide,” said Bandy Lee MED ’94 DIV ’95, a professor in psychology and violence expert who was not involved in the study. “So whereas it is before something has happened, it is still after one has already been feeling powerless and humiliated or surrounded by a culture of hypersensitivity to slights and frequent violence, which makes one vulnerable to acting out.”

However, Lee said, even with the best societal-level prevention, individual cases will inevitably fall through. The paper’s approach of addressing individual suffering is a critical and effective step because individual suffering almost always precedes violence against others.

Kimmel emphasized that gun violence should be approached as a public health issue, as has recently been the case with substance addiction.

Rowe expressed hope that motive control is a neutral cause on which both gun control proponents and opponents can agree, which has potential for policymaking and funding.

In 2018, there were 57,008 incidents of gun violence in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Eui Young Kim | eui.young.kim@yale.edu