CHICAGO --- Dr. Hans Breiter, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, can speak to the root of violent attacks such as those in London and Alexandria, Va.

Breiter focuses on understanding healthy judgment, decision-making and how disregulated emotions can lead to violence.

These types of violent attacks all come down to disregulation of emotion in which people fail to regulate their thoughts and feelings, Breiter said. This happens to us all, but many of us develop backup tools for such times. He is working to develop “a quantitative model of emotion” using mathematical models and equations that he hopes will successfully inform positive interventions to prevent violent acts from occurring.

“In the current circumstances, we’re seeing a spiral of negativity develop,” Breiter said. “The only way we’re going to break that spiral is through broad-based understanding of emotion and emotion regulation, and better systems to see where emotion regulation might be problematic.”

His research is deeply personal to him.

“My father was in a concentration camp,” Breiter said. “My Eastern-European family was obliterated by the Nazis. To me, working against violence is a sacred endeavor.”

Breiter explained that individuals who endure and complete regimented training, such as high school and college education, Boy Scouts, athletics, military programs or extensive training with a musical instrument, often learn how to regulate their emotions much better than those who don’t.

“These teach a form of self-regulation that is so important, including staying away from immediate actions, and short-term repetitive rewards,” Breiter said. “None of us have those skills inherently; we all have to develop them. This is one way society can respond to emotion disregulation.”

He offered a three-pronged approach for communities reeling from violence:

  1. Increase opportunities for youth to develop self regulation
  2. Provide accessible forums for open discussion of issues seeming to be connected to violence
  3. Enable better tools for society to identify individuals at risk for emotional disregulation and provide positive intervention before violence occurs

“Negativity is so deeply reinforcing,” Breiter said. “Think about when you’re really mad, and you talk to someone else who’s mad, and you both just keep getting angrier and angrier. It’s a downward spiral.”