Protective factors, like marriage and employment, usually reduce the risk of violence, but exceptions exist. Some individuals with such factors may still pose a threat due to violent histories.
Protective Factors as Violence Inhibitors
Threat assessment involves sifting through evidence of a possible attack, as well as considering who the person is and what is going on in their life. A key component of these broader considerations consists of what are variously called “violence inhibitors” or “protective factors.” These labels refer to a range of positive aspects in someone’s life. For adults, these factors include such things as being married or having a stable intimate relationship, having children, being employed, having a good home, and so on. For adolescents, protective factors include a supportive, well-functioning family, friendships, and involvement in prosocial activities.
Generally speaking, someone who has a lot to live for will be less likely to commit an act of violence that will destroy their life and have a devastating impact on their loved ones. In other words, the more they have to live for, the more they will be protected from carrying out a desperate act.
Conversely, people without protective factors, or whose protective factors are vanishing, will be more at risk for committing an act of violence. This makes sense in two ways. First, the very fact that they do not have the things that would make their lives more meaningful and fulfilling is likely to result in frustration, anguish, depression, and rage—all of which may put them on the path of violence. Second, because they have little to live for, they do not experience the inhibiting effect of positive relationships, occupational success, and other rewarding experiences.
Though consideration of protective factors is an important aspect of threat assessment, it is important to know that mass attacks have been committed by people who possess important protective factors.
For example, the perpetrators of the Sutherland Springs church shooting in Texas and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida both were married, had one or more children, and had jobs and homes. They both, however, had histories of callous, antisocial, and threatening behavior. Both had histories of violence against women, and the Sutherland Springs killer had been arrested in the military for domestic violence and child abuse. A proper threat assessment needs to go beyond the fact that someone is married or has a job and look deeper into their relationships and behavioral history.
In another case, a woman had a Ph.D., was a professor at a university, was married, and had four children. Though she had protective factors in place, she had been denied tenure and thus was facing the loss of her job, her income, her health insurance, and also her sense of self, because her identity was based on her academic achievements. Beyond these impending losses, she was a psychologically disturbed person with a history of erratic and violent behavior. Again, it is essential to go behind the image of successful functioning to see what might be found.
A consideration of protective factors is an important part of evaluating someone’s risk of violence. It is important, however, to look beyond the simple fact that one or more protective factors may be in place, and explore the person’s past and current functioning, as well as to consider any impending events that may deprive someone of their protective factors.