At the Frontline: Center for Aggression Management President John Byrnes

Violence prevention expert John Byrnes discusses workplace, school violence and the importance of recognizing signs of aggression


What is the difference between cognitive aggression and primal aggression?

Primal aggression is built upon the primal instincts of fight or flight. It is fueled by adrenaline. It is the connection between aggression, the production of adrenaline, the increase of the heart rate and the resulting body language and behavior that we can identify and measure. The moment we discovered this we also realized that this was the aggression of someone losing control. So what about conscious, deliberate aggression? It didn't fit. For years people tried to put it in the same place, it just doesn't fit, so we developed cognitive aggression.

Cognitive aggression is deliberate or conscious aggression or non-conscious in that someone repeats it enough that they no longer give it a lot of thought and they become a vicious person. To this end, this is built on intent and it's really quite simple. What is your intent with a person or persons? Is it your interest and theirs for a win-win as it ought to be or is it your interest and to their detriment? In other words, you intend to victimize this person, you are becoming a victimizer. To this end, we have nine clearly defined levels of cognitive aggression. The first group is the victimizers. The next group is the predators. The highest level, the ninth level of cognitive aggression is the terrorist, the person who wants to evoke terror in the mind of their victim.

Click here to see a PDF chart examining the differences between a primal aggressor and a cognitive aggressor.

How important are workplace violence prevention programs to stopping an aggressor? What are the hallmarks of a good violence prevention program?

The hallmark is a continuum of aggression. That's when we talk to people we talk about policies and procedures as all being reactionary, but when you include the continuum into policy and procedure you can now make (your security program) more preventive. If you have someone who is normally pragmatic, they're methodical, they've got their act together, but today they come in scattered and disjointed, what does that tell you? It means they are not coping with whatever their anxiety is. Profiling would say they came from a bad home; they have all kinds of problems, whatever it is. The point is, in this case, they're not coping. As long as we are coping, as dynamic as it may be, as high and low as it may be, as long as we are coping then everything is copasetic. When we stop coping, when one trigger begins to accumulate on top of the next, we enter into the escalation phase and what I call "mounting anxiety." How does mounting anxiety differ from other forms of anxiety? It changes us our behavior, our body language and through our communication indicators we can identify these changes.

We suggest that you invest a little of your time and talent to go to (this person who isn't coping) in a genuine and caring way and you say to them, "you look a little bit anxious today, tell me about it," and shut up. Remember, it is difficult for an aggressor to aggress against someone who they think is on their side. So typically, they begin to start opening up with you and when they are, they are diminishing their anxiety. Guess what, you've just engaged this person prior to conflict and prevented what could have become conflict in the future. You have to get out in front of conflict if you want to prevent any subsequent violence.

What kind of role do you think our culture plays in incidents of workplace and school violence?

We could spend hours talking about the influences of our culture on the emergence of aggression around us. As an example, we talk about schools and everybody says parents need to take more responsibility for their children, and you know what, that is a correct answer. But you know what the reality is, they aren't. So the reality that we have, if we actually want to prevent (these acts of violence), regardless of what our culture is doing around us, we have to be able to engage (the potential aggressor) before this becomes lethal. Everyone out there, all security and law enforcement personnel are reading (these warning signs of aggression) intuitively... but people are not prepared to put their reputation or jobs on the line based on intuition alone. So they say nothing (about the warning signs) and it becomes an incident. That's why it's so essential we have these measures.