Predicting Dangerousness and Violence

Predicting dangerousness and potentially violent behaviors is one of the most frequently discussed and complicated questions in psychology and a number of other scientific disciplines related to it. One of the common misconceptions is the opinion that people with mental disorders are more likely to commit violence. Studies have shown that only a small percentage of people diagnosed with mental illness have committed violent crimes over the years (Nevid et al., 2020). At the same time, mental health professionals still have not developed any reliable strategies to predict the patient’s dangerousness with a high degree of certainty. In their book, Nevid et al. (2020) describe the problems that increase the complexity of such predictions and make them unreliable. These factors will be presented and discussed in this essay.

The inability of mental health professionals to predict violent tendencies has been confirmed by the two leading organizations in the field, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychiatric Association. According to a wide majority of professionals, however, the best indicator of potential dangerousness is the past history of violence (HLN, 2012). In their book, Nevid et al. (2020) also argue that mental health clinicians do not currently have specific expertise that would allow them to correctly predict potential violent tendencies in patients.

Researchers have identified several factors that make these predictions complicated. According to Nevid et al. (2020), the first problem is the fact that it is much easier to see violent tendencies, their influence, and their connection to the crime after that crime has taken place. It is much more challenging for mental health professionals to recognize such signs of potential danger before the crime is committed (Simon Fraser University, 2017). The second factor discussed in the textbook is the inability to claim that behaviors characteristic of people prone to violence can act as warning signs in all cases without exception. For example, aggressive and antisocial behaviors are not enough to predict dangerousness.

Another important factor that psychologists and psychotherapists struggle with is defining dangerousness. Although there are crimes that are commonly considered to be “acts of violence,” there are also behaviors that are more controversial in this sense (Nevid et al., 2020, p. 580). Some examples of the latter can include “stealing cars, destroying property, driving recklessly,” etc. (Nevid et al., 2020, p. 581). In addition, Nevid et al. (2020) claim that predicting dangerousness is complicated by the fact that violent behaviors of the first kind do not happen often. This issue is generally defined as the base-rate problem and refers to the difficulty of predicting events that do not occur frequently.

Moreover, foreseeing violent tendencies is extremely difficult due to the fact that it is highly improbable that individuals capable of such crimes will openly discuss their intentions with clinicians or other mental health professionals. If they do express annoyance or complain about the people they can potentially harm, they are more likely to do so in a vague and abstract manner. In turn, allegations based on such statements are not sufficient to be considered valid threats.

Finally, the last important factor mentioned in the book is the inability to make assumptions about the patient’s potential intentions based on their behavior in the hospital. Many patients have been able to adapt easily to living in the clinical setting under specialized care (Poldrack et al., 2017). However, it does not necessarily mean that they will be able to behave in the same way when they face the pressures and challenges of life in the community.

Predicting dangerousness has been the focus of many professionals’ work for several decades. In their book, Nevid et al. (2020) claim that the complex nature of this subject is the result of several factors. These include the inability to recognize violent tendencies before the crimes happen, difficulties in defining dangerousness and the signs of potentially violent intentions, as well as the base-rate problem. Other issues are connected to the unlikelihood of violent people discussing their intentions with health professionals and difficulties in predicting their behaviors outside the hospital, based on those in the hospital.


HLN. (2012). Psychologists responsible for predicting violence? YouTube. Web.

Nevid, J. S., Rathus, S. A., & Greene, B. (2020). Abnormal psychology in a changing world (11th ed.). Pearson Education.

Poldrack, R., Monahan, J., Imrey, P., Reyna, V., Raichle, M., Faigman, D., & Buckholtz, J. (2017). Predicting violent behavior: What can neuroscience add? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(2), 1-13. Web.

Simon Fraser University. (2017). The Psychology of Violent Behaviour. YouTube. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Predicting Dangerousness and Violence." September 15, 2023.

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PsychologyWriting. "Predicting Dangerousness and Violence." September 15, 2023.