April 10, 2017

Attitudes about violence predict domestic interventions

Research in Focus: A snapshot of research at Nebraska

Cynthia Willis-Esqueda
File Photo

File Photo
Cynthia Willis-Esqueda

In the next 10 minutes, nearly 200 Americans will be assaulted by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In a new study, University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychologist Cynthia Willis-Esqueda examined why bystanders may or may not intervene and concluded that indifference toward violence likely plays a role.

Research in Focus: Psychology


Willis-Esqueda surveyed 420 college students on a pair of things: Their attitudes toward violence and their preferred approaches for intervention. In doing so, she established a picture of how ingrained acceptance of violence, as well as acceptance of violent reactions to real or perceived threats, influence how a bystander responds (or whether a bystander responds at all).

Willis-Esqueda, whose research focuses on how psychology shapes the criminal justice system, scored the respondents on their cultural violence attitude, defined as their ingrained acceptance of violence and their reactive violence attitude, defined as their acceptance of violence in response to actual or perceived threat.


Those higher on the reactive violence attitude scale – who were more likely to approve of reactive violence – were less likely to personally intervene or call police if they witnessed a domestic violence situation. Those higher on the cultural violence attitudes scale also tended to avoid intervening.

Violence attitudes also predicted how much domestic violence could escalate before someone felt the need to intervene: The threshold level for intervention was higher for those more accepting of violence.

This makes sense, Willis-Esqueda said, because those higher on the scale are more comfortable with violence in society.

Men and women differ?

Gender’s role was also examined. Past research has shown that men are generally more accepting of intimate partner violence; Willis-Esqueda found males tended to prefer no personal nor police intervention – but both males and females had similar thresholds about when they would report domestic abuse.

Why it matters

The research looks at domestic abuse from a bystander’s point of view, rather than the victim or the perpetrator, which is rare. The findings may also help inform intervention strategies.

“Not intervening can have dire consequences,” Willis-Esqueda said. “Indifference to violence in our society precludes some people from seeing that domestic violence is inappropriate. How do we approach this issue and train people so that they see this as a problem and are comfortable with intervention?”

For more information

Willis-Esqueda’s study was recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.