Secrecy News

Violent Behavior Cannot Be Reliably Predicted, Panel Says

The outbreak of violence by individuals who seek to harm other persons or institutions cannot be reliably predicted today, the Defense Science Board said in a new report to the Secretary of Defense.  Instead, efforts to counter violence should focus on prevention and mitigation of the threat.

The new DSB study on “Predicting Violent Behavior” was initiated in response to the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in which thirteen people were killed and dozens wounded allegedly by Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who had not previously been identified as a threat.

“The state of the art in physiological and neurological sciences today does not provide useful capability for predicting targeted violence,” the DSB report said.

“While there are promising indicators that might predict aberrant behavior, severe personality disorders, addiction, and other anti-social behaviors, the current state of the science is such that the false positives and false negatives are very high. In addition, developing a practical means to observe any useful indicators may present a significant challenge.”

In the wake of the Fort Hood shootings, the Defense Department attempted to develop lists of problematic behaviors that might signal a propensity to violence.  One such list was the behaviors included in the adjudicative guidelines for granting (or denying) security clearances.

But the use of that list was not justified, the DSB said.  “The Task Force found little to no relationship between the adjudicative guidelines and targeted violence.”

Moreover, “the Task Force also found that indicator lists are most effective in the hands of trained professionals and are not an effective substitute for a more nuanced, comprehensive set of factors developed by threat-management practitioners. If not handled properly and by trained personnel, lists can lead to high false-positives with accompanying stigma, lack of trust, and reluctance to report. Lists also tend to be static and unless continually revisited the list of indicators becomes less likely to identify adaptive perpetrators who will purposefully avoid elements of listed behavior to avoid interdiction.”

Overall, the DSB Panel advised, “prevention as opposed to prediction should be the Department’s goal.  Good options exist in the near-term for mitigating violence by intervening in the progression from violent ideation to violent behavior.”

2 thoughts on “Violent Behavior Cannot Be Reliably Predicted, Panel Says

  1. So, if the US cannot predict violent behaviour then how does the US justify preemptive strikes? Will preemptive strikes be based solely on “violent ideation” in which case all hate groups including the Tea Party, for example, come in focus? John Horgan in his book “The End of War” agrees with Margaret Mead’s assertion that war is a human invention i.e the major factor at war’s origin is choice and the will power to manifest the choice. American Jihad chooses to exercise freedoms of assembly, speech and to bear arms in the US and the result is WTC 1993. So obviously there are times when “progression from violent ideation to violent behavior” is a matter of failed intelligence. So what is to be done? Far be for me to say but America seems to favor more war and does very little in the way of peacebuilding initiative and human rights advocacy which, IMO, would serve as one means to prevent violent ideation.

  2. I think you mean preventative war not preemptive. “The difference is that a preventive war is launched to destroy the potential threat of an enemy, when an attack by that party is not imminent or known to be planned, while a preemptive war is launched in anticipation of immediate enemy aggression.” (Beres, Louis Rene (1991-1992), On Assassination as Anticipatory Self-Defense: The Case of Israel, 20, Hofstra L. Rev., pp. 321)
    In other words, if an enemy of the United States was mobilizing its forces in an obviously aggressive way, such as Canada lining up armor units along the border, we could launch a preemptive strike to take out those units with clear justification under the laws of war. Whereas, if Canada simply built missiles that could strike the US, and we believed those capabilities were too dangerous to our national security, but had no proof they were going to actually use them against us, any war then would be preventative, and is considered a violation of the justifications for war under Just War Theory.

    Also, to answer your question regarding prediction of violence at a national or international level as opposed to an individual one, IR theory, would state that national behavior is the only level of action that matters. They deem individuals to be erratic and to change national level actions very little. It is this very basis that they ignore individuals when regarding international relations. Be it the Realist theories or Liberalism. There are of course individual level theories, and in those cases, one could make the argument it is more instructive now that this report says we do not have good measures to predict violent behavior. But then IR Theorists (the good ones anyway) have long stated, they are not seeking to predict, but to better understand the causes of actions and to better understand them. Social scientists are not about predicting, although policy makers often push to them to do so. That is of course another argument altogether.

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