Expert Commentary

Hopes for the future linked to lower likelihood of violent behavior

Teen boys from low-income neighborhoods in Pittsburgh were less likely to have perpetuated violence if they had goals and hope for the future.


Teen boys from low-income neighborhoods were less likely to have threatened or injured someone with a weapon if they had hopes and goals for the future, a new research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics finds.

The study surveyed 866 males aged 13-19 in Pittsburgh, who were enrolled in a violence prevention trial. Over three-quarters of the respondents were black. The researchers asked the respondents to rate their views about a number of attitudes toward the future, including whether they expect good things to happen, whether they are excited about the future, and whether they believe they will make a difference in the world. They also asked about the teens’ experience with violence over the previous nine months.

They found that kids with positive views of the future were less likely to have threatened or injured someone with a weapon in the past nine months.

However, there was not a significant link between attitudes toward the future and the likelihood that respondents had been in a physical fight over the past nine months.

One possible explanation for these findings–that hopes for the future lowered the likelihood of threatening or injuring someone with a weapon, but did not lower the likelihood of involvement in a fight–is that kids with a positive outlook toward the future might be “more hesitant to be involved in severe forms of violence, such as perpetrating weapons-related violence,” which often carries severe consequences too, Alison Culyba, lead author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine explained in a phone interview with Journalist’s Resource.

She continued, “The reality is that violence is often a part of their lives or the lives of their peers. Being in a fight is something experienced incredibly commonly, especially in these settings.” Having a positive outlook toward the future might not be enough to ward against all forms of violence, she said, adding that affirmative responses to whether teens were in a fight could include those who were victims or bystanders in fights, as well as perpetrators.

Culyba noted that her work differs from the majority of research on children and violence, which focuses on identifying risk factors, rather than factors that protect kids from violence. She suggested that future research might follow children for longer periods of time to better understand the relationship between positive views of the future and the experience of violence. This research, she suggested, could help identify the time points most critical for intervention to improve aspirations and hopes for the future and potentially reduce violence.

These interventions would “come from a strengths-based model,” she explained, aiding youths in identifying their goals and aspirations and applying their assets. She offered the examples of job and training opportunities.

Culyba noted the importance of investing in communities, too. In communities where violence is common, often there “aren’t as many opportunities to be engaged in productive, pro-social ways.” Improving access to such types of engagement goes hand in hand with strengthening views about the future, she said.

The headline and introduction of this post have been updated for clarity. 

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