Association between the violence inhibitor, empathy, and guilt, and whether a person who is capable of easily committing violence can experience these emotions
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According to the Violence Inhibition Mechanism Model (VIM), it is this mechanism that is a prerequisite for the development of such emotions as sympathy, guilt, remorse, and empathy. However, its immediate function is precisely the inhibition of violence, which occurs as an aversive reaction to distress cues (expressions of sadness, fear, pain, etc.) from other people. What happens outside of this process but is still the result of the violence inhibitor function, in turn, arises due to conditioning – the formation of conditioned reflex reactions. Simply put, the acquisition of experience by individuals and their socialization create conditioned stimuli to activate this mechanism. Thus, in the course of their development, individuals become capable of experiencing an aversive reaction even simply by imagining causing harm to another person, and not only by directly trying to do it and directly observing distress cues.
The role of the violence inhibitor in the development of empathy is explained as follows: individuals, when observing distress signals, can often imagine and understand the state of victims, and try on their role. As a result, the association of distress signal that activated the violence inhibitor with these representations will occur, and individuals will become able to show an empathic response only by thinking about someone else's distress. With the development of other previously listed emotions, everything happens in a similar way.
It can be seen that the violence inhibitor links the empathic response (perceptions of another person's distress) to the aversive response through a conditioning process rather than generating it on its own. Do not confuse violence inhibition with empathy. For example, studies of tribal peoples show that in intertribal relationships they do not experience empathy, but they experience inhibition of violence . And a person can show empathy not only because of this mechanism but also, for example, because of the oxytocin system, which plays an important role in prosocial behavior, classifying people as "in-group" members, as well as pair bonding. Thus, a significant connection was found between empathy and the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene, as well as the CD38 gene, which affects the release of this hormone .
It is worth noting that violence inhibition, as a function of the serotonergic system, can also affect the release of oxytocin. However, animal experiments have shown that the suppression of the oxytocin receptor does not interfere with the anti-aggressive effect of the activation of the serotonin 1A receptor but only leads to a decrease in prosocial behavior. This means that the regulation of aggression and the stimulation of prosocial behavior are different neurophysiological functions and the functioning of the system responsible for the first can affect the functioning of the system responsible for the second, but not vice versa.
The manifestation of empathy is influenced by both these systems at once, which can speak of it as also a separate neurophysiological function. The situation can be similar to other emotions, such as guilt. The study proposing the VIM model notes that the ability to experience guilt arises as a result of conditioning. But shouldn't there be a separate neurophysiological mechanism responsible for this emotion?
This material is an attempt to expand our understanding of how aggressive behavior is regulated, as well as to explain a person's ability to experience empathy or guilt despite a weak or completely dysfunctional violence inhibitor. Of course, in this case, these emotions will be developed much worse, but this does not necessarily mean their complete absence. Even brutal killers may well be able to love and feel sorry for others or feel guilty about their actions. However, it is always worth remembering that the vast majority of people are unable to commit violent attacks and murders due to strong inner resistance to such acts. And this is exactly the norm for the average healthy individual.
1. Van der Dennen, J. M. G. (2008). A vindication of Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s concept of Tötungshemmungen (conspecific killing inhibitions)? Human ethology, military psychology, and the neurosciences. University of Groningen, the Netherlands;
2. Foster, J. (2019). Are You Genetically More Empathetic? (OXTR).