Researchers examine link between everyday stress, subsequent violence

Jordan Jacobs

A professor in the sociology department is conducting research that could help people deal with the stresses of everyday life by looking at how people react to stress and how that stress may lead to violence.

Will Kalkhoff, associate sociology professor, and Edelyn Verona, professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are researching the relationship between stress and aggression.

Kalkhoff is comparing Kent State students with subjects gathered from the Department of Job and Family Services in Ravenna. Kalkhoff said less-privileged people are underrepresented in research like this.

While all people are stressed, Kalkhoff said he is interested in how people in the two groups react to different stressors.

Other research in the field has focused on the social aspects of stress, but Kalkhoff’s research takes a different approach.

“We’re looking at brain functioning,” Kalkhoff said. “The focus is on frontal lobe functioning.”

The frontal lobe is the area of the brain that controls higher functions, such as judgment, self-monitoring and supervision, and impulse control, which is important to Kalkhoff’s research. An injury to the frontal lobe may result in impulse control problems.

“People who are impulsive are more likely to be violent,” Kalkhoff said. This leads to a “vicious cycle of stress and violence and more stress.”

The research consists of a series of surveys and some simple exercises designed to measure a subject’s impulsiveness and cognitive function.

“The questionnaires we use to assess different behaviors people are engaging in, different stressors, personality characteristics,” said Ashley Kilmer, graduate student and research assistant.

Some of the tasks include matching cards according to a set of rules, repeating a series of numbers back to the researchers and listing as many words as possible that begin with a certain letter, Kilmer said.

“It’s a game, basically,” Kalkhoff said. “We see how quickly they can change with the game.”

The “game” helps determine the level of cognitive function each subject has. A subject with high cognitive function will be less likely to act out because of stress because cognitive function is what makes people think through their actions.

While the research is still in the data collection phase, both Kalkhoff and Kilmer say they hope to use the information collected to help people.

“It could have policy implications,” Kilmer said. “Prevention is the biggest goal.”

She added the research could help design programs to assist those who have problems with stress.

“People who have these resources, even if they have been stressed, then they will be less likely to lash out,” Kalkhoff said.

Contact arts and sciences reporter Jordan Jacobs at [email protected].