Academics & Research

UH professor researches therapy for domestic violence perpetrators

A UH professor is taking a different view on domestic violence research with an experiment that examines the perpetrator instead of the victim.
“It’s a no-brainer to study the perpetrator,” said Julia Babcock, associate professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Couples Therapy. “Most criminologists study the perpetrator of crime, not the victim, if they are trying to understand the causes of violence and how to stop it.”

Babcock said she was patronized when she displayed her results, despite positive findings, as many funders are hesitant to give money to research anything other than the victim of abuse.

“I was presenting once at the Association for Behavioral & Cognitive Therapies convention and a panelist laughed when I talked about teaching the perpetrator communication skills. She said, ‘Good luck’ as if it were an impossible task,” Babcock said. “My results show otherwise. If you don’t think people can change, why are you doing research?”

Babcock’s research found that they could improve batterers’ communication skills. She said the results displayed decreased aggressive attacks on the female partner, less contemptuous behavior and fewer criticisms from both parties.

Babcock and her research team recruited 120 Houston-area couples who were experiencing conflict in their relationship. The research centered around male abusers because men are the perpetrators in about 85 percent of abuse cases, and women are 10 times more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than men, she said.

The couples were given surveys and one-on-one therapy to examine the issues that incited violent behavior. The research team then observed couples in a 15-minute argument. Both were monitored for heart rate, respiration, skin conductance, movement, pulse, transit time of blood flow from the periphery to the heart, and skin temperature, Babcock said.

Halfway through the argument the researchers interrupted and gave the men options to communicate better. They were randomly given either a time out, a request to edit out the negative where the man would make the same points in a more neutral fashion or a request to accept influence, where the man listens to the woman’s ideas, Babcock said.

Adam Majzo, a geology junior said this research could benefit the perpetrator.

“(This research) could aid in the behavioral approach and provide modification for that person and maybe help them,” Majzo said.

The male abusers were taught these communication skills and then asked to use them in the second half of the argument. Babcock said the status quo is not good enough.

“Our existing intimate partner violence interventions don’t work very well. Some violent families could benefit from communications skills training and couples therapy, provided that the perpetrator is not character logically violent and that the victim is not in fear,” she said.

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