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Bullied and mistreated teens are much more likely to fantasize about hurting or killing others, a new study warns.
"One way to think about fantasies is as our brain rehearsing future scenarios," said lead author Manuel Eisner, director of the University of Cambridge Violence Research Center in the U.K.
His research included more than 1,400 young people in Zurich, Switzerland, who were asked about their thoughts and experiences at ages 15, 17 and 20. Among other things, they were asked whether they'd had violent thoughts in the last month, and the types of bullying or aggression they had faced in the past year.
Researchers also asked about participants' experiences with 23 forms of victimization, including taunts, physical attacks and sexual harassment by peers; aggressive parenting such as yelling and slapping; and dating violence such as being pressured into sex.
Most reported at least one type of victimization. But being subjected to a range of mistreatment was closely linked with increased thinking about killing, attacking or humiliating others.
Boys were generally more likely to have violent thoughts, but the effect of multiple types of victimization on violent fantasies was similar in both boys and girls.
The rate of violent fantasies in the last month among 17-year-old boys who had not been victimized in the preceding year was 56%. Every additional type of mistreatment increased the probability of violent fantasies by up to 8%.
Those who reported five forms of victimization had an 85% likelihood of having had violent fantasies. That rose to 97% among those who reported 10 forms of victimization.
Among 17-year-old girls, violent fantasy probability was 23% among those who reported no victimization; 59% among those who reported five types of mistreatment; and 73% in those who said they had suffered 10.
Overall, violent fantasies decreased by age 20, with 14% of young men and 5.5% of women reporting having thoughts in the past month of killing someone they know.
But the influence of victimization on violent fantasies didn't lessen as study participants grew up, suggesting that the intensity of this mental health effect may not fade, according to authors of the study published April 27 in the journal Aggressive Behavior.
Higher rates of violent fantasies among those who are bullied or mistreated may be a psychological mechanism to help prepare them for violence to come.
"These fantasies of hitting back at others may have roots deep in human history, from a time when societies were much more violent, and retribution — or the threat of it — was an important form of protection," Eisner said.
This study did not investigate whether violent thoughts caused by victimization led to violent behavior. But Eisner said a consistent finding across criminology is that victims often become offenders and vice versa.
"Fantasies are unrestrained, and the vengeance taken in our minds is often wildly disproportionate to the real-world event which triggered it," he said.
SOURCE: University of Cambridge, news release, April 27, 2021
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