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To dream, perchance to kill.

Albert Einstein said that "thought is father of the action." This axiom is directly applicable to violence in schools and offices, and an understanding of its implications may help managers detect the early warning signs of a troubled employee.

Einstein referred particularly to the sequence of thoughts known as personal fantasies that affect our everyday behavior. These fantasies form an integral part of our self-management-systems mechanisms. Through them we face our flaws, process our emotions, seek solutions for difficult situations, and dream of becoming "better" human beings. In daydreams we console and entertain ourselves, create agendas, and rehearse possible actions.

Security professionals, teachers, and others who acquaint themselves with the nature of personal reveries can watch for external signs of abnormal fantasies that are the precursors to destructive behavior. By doing so, they can stop these "crimes in process" before they become reality.

Nature of fantasies. Fantasies are thought processes: internal monologues and imaginative sequences incorporating personal needs, values, and defenses. Every human being, across cultures, has significant psychosocial needs that crave satisfaction. Examples include control, self-esteem, autonomy, dependency, nurturance, affiliation, and sex. There are also innate universal economic, social, and spiritual values. Frequently, fantasies involve integrating these needs, values, and defenses with the behavior of other people with whom we are in significant romantic, familial, social, or employment relationships.

Fantasies spring from outside stimuli and have varying effects on decisions and behavior. Some are based on memories of long-ago events. Constructive, positive fantasies are balanced and integrate charitable values. Negative, destructive daydreams emerge from repeatedly unsatisfied needs.

Fantasy types. Researchers have shown that the content of daydreams at each chronological age is consistent. At age two, and again throughout the teens, autonomy becomes an important need. Fantasies feature taking control, refusing to be led or dictated to, and following one's own plan of action. If these needs are successfully gratified at each age level, other more socially beneficial needs become prominent, such as the need for industry or intimacy. If the progress of normal need fulfillment is halted at any stage, it may produce aggressive, vengeful fantasies, retard maturity, and diminish self-esteem.

Children, for example, often use fantasy to satisfy the need for justice. A child deprived of self-esteem by physical and psychological abuse may indulge in rescue fantasies or dream about being strong or powerful enough to punish the abuser. If delivered from abuse, the child usually feels that justice has been served, and destructive fantasies cease. If the maltreatment continues, however, the want of justice may be subsumed by the desire for revenge. The child may expand the retaliation fantasy, imagining overcoming his or her helplessness by assuming power over others. This child may begin abusing animals, younger siblings, or schoolmates. In this way, the abused begins to become the abuser.

Fantasies are flexible; they evolve as the person processes and integrates new, objective information. Normal individuals usually reject negative fantasies for those more positive. Fantasies are also reality-oriented, incorporating an individual's actual capacities, limitations, and options. The daydreams of well-adjusted individuals incorporate empathy, sympathy, responsibility, and moral rightness.

When emotion wells up in an emotionally healthy person, he or she fantasizes about constructive options for achieving positive satisfaction for him or herself and others.

The fantasy content of those whose emotional needs have become unhealthy often includes hostility, amorality, pornography, deceit, viciousness, and violence. The fantasies may also become obsessions, building in intensity until the individual is driven to fulfill them without consideration of real-life consequences.

The pattern of daydreaming in an abnormal individual can be erratic, unstable. and unpredictable, beginning, for example, with excessive love that later turns to excessive hostility. The mood of the fantasizer matches his or her fantasies, either buoyant or depressive. These fantasies do not help the individual cope with stress or real-life situations but rather lead the fantasizer into isolation and increasingly impulsive acts.

At this low ebb, the fantasizer cannot distinguish the real from the imagined or integrate objective outside facts into his or her daydreams. This tendency leads to imaginings of the past overriding present objective experience; in other words, although the fantasizer is not in a hostile situation, he or she continues to imagine violent self-defense or vengeance in the face of an imagined antagonistic environment.

Criminal fantasies. In the late 1970s, the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit probed the minds of incarcerated sexual offenders through in-depth, personal interviews. The goal was to help crime-scene investigators create a profile of the sexual predator from clues left behind. One of the researchers' most valuable findings was the importance of fantasy to the violent criminal.

Almost all of the violent offenders studied had intense fantasy lives that provided mental escape and drove their real-life behavior. Planning their crimes in detail formed a large part of these imaginings - for example, they mentally selected their weapons, bindings, and other tools to control their victims, and chose specific acts of torture to inflict on them. The more the offender dwelt on these fantasies, research revealed, the more intense the drive to act them out became.

During the FBI interview, for example, serial killer Edmund Emil Kemper lit told agents that he daydreamed about luring female hitchhikers into his vehicle to sexually assault and murder them. Eventually, Kemper tested the waters by picking up several girls and releasing them unharmed. Emboldened and assured that he would have no problem obtaining victims, Kemper unleashed his fantasies of rape and murder, going on to kill six women before escalating to killing and raping his own mother and her friend.

The FBI agents determined that preliminary signs of his later behavior were exhibited in Kemper's play as a child and in his adult behavior. For instance, as a child, Kemper had tortured and killed neighborhood pets, including burying his own family cat alive.

Emotionally disturbed employees or students, therefore, may telegraph signs of violent fantasies to peers before some incident precipitates an act of violence. Supervisors and teachers should be trained to pick up these signs.

Leakage. The FBI studies and other research efforts have shown that the imaginer has a strong desire to keep his or her inner world from being exposed. However. it is human nature to communicate internal emotions, especially to friends and family. Although the imaginer may try to conceal his or her fantasies, indications will often escape as unintentional words or actions known as "leakage."

Verbal clues. Verbal leaks are direct statements usually made after some triggering event heightens the imaginer's emotional agitation beyond the limits of control. The individual may also regularly refer to violence and tell stories about violent situations, especially other incidents of workplace or school violence. He or she may make threats or cryptic statements about problems, such as "next week none of this will matter anymore."

Nonverbal clues. Often signs of destructive fantasies can be observed in body language. For instance, an angry person will often clench his or her fists in the presence of a disliked individual. Neck veins may protrude, the face may become flushed, jaw muscles will tighten, and breathing will become heavier and erratic. The individual may sigh, appear disgusted, glance furtively, stare or look away, exhibit signs of impatience, and roll his or her eyes. Facial expressions may have a cold, dispassionate, distanced, or pained appearance. The fantasizer may also adopt a cocky "tough guy" posture. Sexual fantasizers may sit with their legs apart, wear suggestively tight clothing, or fix their gaze on the intimate areas of a coworker's body.

Possessions. Personal possessions also communicate the details of an abnormal fantasy life. Unnecessary symbols of authority such as handcuffs, badges, and weapons can betray fantasies of power and control. The individual will often become interested in guns and knives, especially those designed for killing people.

The imaginer may also surround him- or herself with books, magazines, and videotapes about killing, martial arts, the paramilitary, mercenary soldiering, and sexual sadism. He or she may dress wholly or in part in camouflage uniforms. In addition, these individuals often drive cars of the same make and model as police or military vehicles.

Music. Music has always been deeply associated with romantic, melancholic, and violent fantasies. An obsessive preference for any type of music featuring lyrics about revenge and battles against authority can be an indicator of potential external violence.

Drugs and alcohol. A troubled individual may resort to some sort of substance abuse. Drinking and drug use can either deaden the acute desire to turn a violent fantasy into reality or loosen inhibitions, facilitating dangerous behavior. It may also increase verbal leakage.

Recklessness. Another sign of abnormal fantasies is reckless behavior at work. This activity can include ignoring safety precautions or driving wildly in company vehicles and when arriving or leaving the employer's property. Recklessness may also be financial.

Suicide. The majority of vengeful murders in the workplace result in suicide. Therefore, leakage may reveal suicidal thoughts and self-destructive fantasies. The individual may cease making payments on his or her mortgage, credit cards, or car because he or she "won't be around when the creditors come calling." The individual may also begin giving away his or her personal possessions.

Harassment. Like the child who abuses his schoolmates to feel powerful, disturbed adults will often seek out targets for racial, gender, ethnic, or sexual harassment. They may also develop erotomania, which is the pursuit of a romantic liaison with someone who has made it clear that romance is not welcome. Frequently, erotomania results in the disturbed individual's stalking the victim.

Stressors. A stressor, or precipitating event that leads to a violent outbreak, is often the perceived echo of an event that once created painful emotions. It is exaggerated in importance by the individual, takes over his or her fantasies, and finally transforms the fantasy into destructive plans to terminate the perceived injustice and reestablish self-esteem.

Precipitating stressors may occur on the job, in school, or at home. They may include family conflicts or tragedies, the failure of a friendship or romantic relationship, financial difficulties, failing health, legal problems, or the birth of a child. The stressor may also have nothing to do with a person's own life. For example, a violent event could be triggered in copycat fashion by hearing a news report or reading a magazine article about a violent incident that is similar to the person's abnormal fantasy.

A stressor is not always a "final straw." A series of stressors may be necessary to cause a violent occurrence, or they may drive a series of smaller disruptive events or malicious mischief. In one case our company worked on, a worker began writing and distributing an underground newsletter revealing the peccadilloes of management and employees. Other examples of this type of behavior are puncturing the tires or scratching the paint of a perceived enemy's automobile, stealing or destroying a coworker's personal possessions, or leaving threatening notes or e-mail messages.

When anger is directed against an organization rather than at a specific individual, the malicious behavior will usually take the form of product and project tampering or sabotage. One well-known case of sabotage with catastrophic consequences was the December 1984 poison gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed approximately 3,000 people. Investigations revealed that a disgruntled worker decided to ruin a batch of the company's chemicals by diluting them with water. He did not understand that, by doing so, he was creating a pervasive deadly gas.

Sabotage may include subtly changing a database or a written product to undermine the company's or a specific group's integrity. In another case our company consulted on, a computer systems analyst with access to every employee's computer files argued with a coworker. He began to change the accuracy of that person's work just enough to create noticeable project problems that called the coworker's competency into question.

When a stressor occurs that leads to violence, it is often born from fantasies of possession, control, recognition, achievement, and intellectual prowess that lead to hostage-taking. Outcomes of these types of fantasies include kidnapping and extortion. When triggered by the appropriate stressor, fantasies of vengeance and control lead to assaults, rapes, and homicides. By obtaining power over other human beings via a deadly weapon, the person literally achieves the power of life and death.

Solutions. At work, managers, supervisors, security officers, and front-line employees can be trained to look for signs of violence and report them to a threat management team. This team can create a plan to neutralize the potential threat, either by therapeutically rehabilitating the employee or discharging that person if rehabilitation is deemed unlikely. In the latter case, however, the termination can easily become the precipitating stressor of violence. The termination process must be tailored to the profile of the volatile employee. (And, of course, the company must ensure that all policies regarding such firings are implemented in accordance with all applicable laws.)

In one of our firm's cases, an employee with exceptional computer skills often became embroiled in heated arguments with coworkers. His company chose to dismiss him with a grant to attend an anger management course and a business etiquette program. He successfully completed each course and went on to find successful employment elsewhere.

Therapy. Therapists who specialize in working with dangerous patients try to help such patients change their self-perceptions and, thereby, their internal fantasies. The goal is to reduce their tendency toward violent thoughts and actions. This process is neither fast nor easy, and a company committed to rehabilitating the employee must be prepared for a lengthy undertaking. If the company has a medical services unit, the organization's medical practitioner should be briefed on the case and should discuss it with the therapist.

At the heart of a therapeutic program should be the premise that humans can choose between what is morally and ethically right and wrong. The person must learn to control his or her thought processes, subverting dangerous fantasies of revenge. Positive and constructive fantasies must eventually replace the destructive thoughts of the individual in the hope that such thoughts will one day become routine.

Workplace or school violence almost never occurs without warning. By learning to spot the early clues to a dangerous fantasy life, persons in authority may be able to intervene in time to avoid a real-life nightmare.

Roger L. Depue, Ph.D., former special agent chief of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit, is the founder of the Academy Group, Inc., of Manassas, Virginia, a forensic behavioral science consulting firm. His wife. Joanne M. Depue, Ph.D., professor emeritus of the Pontifical Gregorian Institute in Rome, is a clinical psychologist at St. John's Pastoral Counseling Center, Warrenton, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:psychological aspects of violence
Author:Depue, Roger L.; Depue, Joanne M.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Words:2442
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