The Psychology of Interpersonal Violence and Animal Abuse

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The Psychology of Interpersonal Violence and Animal Abuse

By Ken Shapiro, Ph.D. on Animals & Society Institute
July 2009

Study Summary

Research has long since documented a relationship between human violence and animal abuse, but more research is needed to help understand the psychology of individuals who perpetrate such abuse. A 2008 study by Maya Gupta, helps identify the characteristics of people who commit both animal abuse and domestic violence. It's already known that gender influences who commits animal abuse; this study looked deeper at those gender differences.

The study, "Functional Links Between Intimate Partner Violence and Animal Abuse: Personality Features and Representations of Aggression," was conducted in 2007 and published in the journal Society & Animals (16, 3, 2008). In it, several hundred college students whose families include dogs (since dogs are the most frequent victims of domestic animal abuse) answered questionnaires designed to identify and measure attitudes and responses to statements and/or hypothetical situations related to callousness, aggression, interpersonal rejection, and conflict, both between human beings and between humans and animals.

The study focused on four factors associated with interpersonal and interspecies violence:

Callousness - a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others are violated

Rejection sensitivity - a pattern of anxiously expecting and readily perceiving rejection, and overreacting when rejection is perceived

Instrumental aggression - intentional acts of aggression meant to accomplish an objective, such as intimidation

Expressive aggression - acts of aggression that occur as during a loss of self-control resulting from emotional distress

The study was designed to predict what personality traits make certain people more likely to commit animal abuse, and why. The results of the study confirmed the major hypothesis. There is a strong relationship for both genders between callousness and instrumental aggression and between rejection sensitivity and expressive aggression. This means that callous people who are violent toward humans or animals tend to use animals as instruments in that aggression; while people who are sensitive to rejection tend to strike out against their victims, acting out their immediate distress

However, the pattern of relationships differed by gender: For males, callousness directly (independent of its relation to instrumental aggression) predicted both human and animal violence. For females, rejection sensitivity predicted only violence toward humans. Men are more likely than women to harm animals as a means of "making a statement," while women were more likely to act out in an emotional response (and more likely against people than animals).

Policy Implications

The study showed that violence committed against domestic partners and/or animals can occur based on the presence of several psychological factors. It can help answer questions such as those that arose after Michael Vick was convicted of participating in fighting dogs and killing them; why and how could he (or anyone) do such a thing?

The Gupta study supports the position that by requiring animal abusers to undergo full psychological evaluations, we can better determine the source of the perpetrator's violent behavior. This helps us to better predict and/or prevent both domestic violence and animal abuse, particularly since both commonly occur together. Understanding context and subculture of the abuser's aggression allows a more specific treatment to be implemented by the court system. The AniCare treatment model can be tailored to both the callous/instrumental abuser and to the rejection-sensitive/expressive abuser, thereby offering specific treatment to individuals based on their psychological tendencies as well as their gender, which may play a significant role.


Kenneth Shapiro earned his BA from Harvard University and his PhD in clinical psychology from Duke University. He is cofounder of Animals and Society Institute. He founded Psychologists for the Ethical treatment of Animals and the Society and Animals Forum. He is founder and editor of Society and Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies; cofounder and coeditor of Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; and editor of the Human-Animal Studies book series. His most recent book is Animal Models of Human Psychology: Critique of Science, Ethics and Policy. He is one of the developers of AniCare and AniCare Child, the only psychological treatment models for animal abusers, and trains therapists throughout the country on the use of these models.

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