U. WASHINGTON (US)—Men who engage in domestic violence consistently overestimate how common such behavior is, and the more they overestimate, the more they engage in abusing their partner.
“We don’t know why men make these overestimations, but there are a couple of likely reasons,” says Clayton Neighbors, an affiliate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington and a professor of psychology at the University of Houston.
“Men who engage in violent behavior justify it in their mind by thinking it is more common and saying, ‘Most guys slap their women around so it is okay to engage in it.’ Or it could be that misperceptions about violence cause the behavior.”
Neighbors says these men overestimated by two to three times the actual rates of seven behaviors ranging from throwing something at a partner to rape. Details of the study will be published in the journal Violence Against Women.
“Another way of looking at this would be wearing a red shirt. If you think everyone is wearing a red shirt then it is okay for you to wear one too. Or if you wear a red shirt you might overestimate the number of other people who are wearing red shirts,” he explains.
The work is the first to document overestimation of intimate partner violence by batterers and is consistent with findings about a variety of other harmful behaviors such as substance use, gambling, and eating disorders. This line of research looks at social norms, or what is considered to be appropriate and inappropriate behavior in society.
“Social norms theory suggests that people act in a way that they believe is consistent with what the average person does,” adds Denise Walker, research professor of social work and co-director of the Innovative Programs Research Group.
The research looked at 124 men who were enrolled in a larger treatment intervention study for domestic violence. The men, all of whom had participated in violence against a partner in the previous 90 days, were asked to estimate the percentage of men who had ever engaged in seven forms of abuse.
These included throwing something at a partner that could hurt; pushing, grabbing, or shoving a partner; slapping or hitting; choking; beating up a partner; threatening a partner with a gun; and forcing a partner have sex when they did not want to.
Data on the percentage of men who actually engaged in these abusive behaviors were drawn from the National Violence Against Women Survey, funded by the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In every case the men vastly overestimated the actual instances of abuse. For example, the participants on average thought 27.6 percent of men had thrown something with the intent of hurting a partner while the actual number is 11.9 percent. Similarly, they believed 23.6 percent of men had forced their partner to have sex involuntary compared to 7.9 percent in reality.
“With sexual assault the more a man thought it was prevalent the more likely he was to engage in such behavior. If we can correct misperceptions about the prevalence of intimate partner violence, we have a chance to change men’s behavior. If you give them factual information it is harder for them to justify their behavior,” Neighbors says
“It is unclear if we can change perpetrators’ behavior by correcting their misperceptions about intimate partner violence,” Walker says.
However, work in alcohol use suggests that changing misperceptions about drinking changes drinking behavior among college students. Consistent with social norms theory, people are motivated to be ‘average’ in many ways, particularly if the behavior in question could be considered risky or taboo.”
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