May 02, 1996
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Why Do Men Abuse Women?

Senior's research project provides some disturbing insights

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

For her senior thesis, Teresa Ou had to face down men who had been convicted of beating their wives and girlfriends.

The 5-foot, 3-inch student asked them questions like how many times they had slapped, kicked, choked, or bit women in the past year. Most of them were not happy about providing answers. Arrested for battering women, the men were undergoing court- ordered counseling at a center in Cambridge known as Emerge. Ou was trying to pinpoint differences between those who abuse women and those who don't.

"The experience definitely matured me a lot," said Ou, 21. "It's not everyone who has to stare down bigger, older males who just got out of jail.

"The men's attitudes toward women and wife abuse play an important role, of course, but I learned that other factors are better predictors of battering. I think this conclusion has important ramifications for the treatment and counseling of these men."

Scary Interviews

It all started one day when Ou, a psychology and women's studies concentrator, was walking across the Yard. A sign on a kiosk announced that one out of every three women in this country is in an abusive relationship.

"It really hit me," she recalled. "I knew it was a problem, but I didn't realize the magnitude."

Instead of being shocked, then forgetting about it, Ou decided to learn as much as she could about abuse. "I thought that looking at the problem from both a psychological and woman's point of view would give me a better understanding of it than through either window alone."

Ou spent the summer of 1995 as an intern at Emerge. Things did not start off well.

"I had to give orders to the men and ask personal questions," she said. Some men didn't want a college "brat" telling them what to do. Others balked at answering questions about their age and occupation, and how much money they made last year.

"One of them, he was six feet or taller, started yelling at me," Ou remembered. "I was pretty scared."

To see what made them abusers, Ou needed the men to respond to questionnaires about their backgrounds, IQ, personalities, and attitudes. A "conflict tactics" questionnaire asked about how many times they "insulted," "threatened," "pushed," or "slapped" women, or "used a knife or fired a gun." An attitude test asked if they agreed or disagreed with statements such as: "Telling dirty jokes should be mostly a male prerogative" and "A husband should have the right to discipline his wife if necessary."

To provide incentive, Ou offered each test-taker $20. She interviewed about 35 men, of which 21 agreed to respond. Ou got the impression that those who didn't need the money refused to participate.

"Some of the men who wore suits turned me down," she noted. "A few said they participated because they wanted to know what caused their behavior. One man gave his $20 to Emerge because he felt the counseling helped him."

Ou recruited a comparison group of nonabusers with a newspaper ad. Each of them was also paid $20.

To cover these and other costs, she received a total of $2,800 in grants from the Schlesinger Library (Pforzheimer Fellowship), the Psychology Department, and the Harvard College Research Program. Her research adviser was assistant professor of psychology Jordan Peterson.

Attitudes and Personality

The cavalier attitude of some abusers distressed Ou. "Instead of being ashamed, they seemed proud when they talked about kicking, biting, or slapping their wives and girlfriends 20 or more times in the past year," she commented.

Others completely denied battering anyone, even though they had been arrested for it. "They would say, 'I don't belong in this group; you may want to put me with the nonabusers,' " Ou said. "Denial is a big problem."

Yet others blamed the battering on their wives, making statements such as "she wouldn't stop nagging me."

To help ease the tension, Ou shared the interviewing with a male friend, Sebastian Conley '96. "He helped me convince them that we were curious about their behavior rather than trying to assign blame," she explained.

Some of the results of the study were what you might expect.

"Batterers tend to commit more crimes and have lower levels of education and IQs," Ou said. "They tend to be more neurotic, less agreeable, less extroverted, open, and conscientious than the average American man. They are more authoritarian."

In fact, Ou found that unquestioned obedience to authority defined abusers more than their attitudes toward women or wife beating.

"Abusers are less forgiving of those who violate law and order and more punitive to those they consider weak," she says. "They favor harsher punishment for lawbreakers. They feel little compassion for those they regard as inferior. When they treat women as inferior, sexism becomes a subpart of their authoritarianism."

Ou also concludes that abusers are more anxious, nervous, irritable, excitable, moody, defensive, self-centered, and hasty. And they are less confident, optimistic, content, and clear-thinking. "Simply by this characterization, you would expect these men to have more outbursts," she adds.

Wife beaters also get low marks for agreeableness. Less agreeable equates with less forgiving, peaceable and tolerant, while more stubborn, demanding, argumentative, unstable, suspicious, and aggressive. In short, they are more likely to lash out when provoked.

Ou is not so sure about the role of IQ in this kind of behavior. "Those who don't get arrested might be better at concealing their abuse," she admits. "The people in my study may just be a subgroup of batterers, the ones who got caught and arrested."

A surprising finding was that the severity of the violence did not increase with personality disorders and criminal background. "Instead, marriage appears to be the most significant determinant of severity," Ou noted. "This may reflect the difficulty in ending a marriage as opposed to a relationship. A woman 'trapped' in a marriage may be willing to tolerate more abuse."

Ou doesn't think her results are accurate enough to use for predicting who'll abuse a women and who won't. However, she believes they may be helpful for treating and counseling.

"I think treatment should focus less on sexism and more on the issue of power and control," she says. "If counseling concentrates more on sexist explanations, an abuser's violent behavior may simply be directed at another group perceived as weaker or inferior. In addition, emotion control and management might be useful to reduce the volatility of highly neurotic and disagreeable men."

Despite the fact that she's not too popular at Emerge, Ou enjoyed the research. "I'm proud of my work," she says. "It's the biggest thing I've done in four years at Harvard."

Ou won a summa grade for the honors thesis she wrote about this study.

The Chicago native is as interested in the punishment of abusers as in their psychology. After graduation, she will come back to the campus as a student at the Law School.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College