Can Psychedelics Improve Emotional Regulation in Men?
TRIGGER WARNING: This article describes violent acts, and links to discussions with hateful violent language.
In April this year, a man drove a van across busy pedestrian streets in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring more. It was the deadliest mass homicide in the city’s history.
The murderer identified himself with the growing “incel” movement – a term with origins in sexual frustration (the word “incel” is a portmanteau of the misnomer “involuntary celibate”) that has now been appropriated by a nebulous group of disgruntled men who believe that society is rigged against them, dooming them to a life without the sex they’re entitled to.
Mostly confined to online forums, the number of people defining themselves as incels is hard to pin down – although a recent surge in searches for “incel” and the media attention following the Toronto attack suggests that its popularity is on the rise.
The online gathering-places for the modern incel are littered with calls for misogynistic violence, rape, and coercion. When incels aren’t praising the violent actions of mass murderers, or urging others to act in a similar fashion – they’re spreading brutal misogynistic propaganda promoting rape, domestic abuse, and pedophilia.
The reasons behind the surge in incel ideologies are many and complex: harmful patriarchal gender conventions; the normalization of aggression in young boys; the struggle some men encounter in connecting with their emotions. There are dozens of models to explain the attractiveness of incel philosophies to the modern man. But no matter what psychological and societal reasons for incelhood, the movement is inarguably associated with violence.
Male-perpetrated violence is, unsurprisingly, soaked throughout culture and history. It’s not just a phenomenon confined to the bloody sands of ancient battlefields or the slave trade of America and Europe’s shameful legacies. It’s reflected in modern domestic violence statistics, showing that male-perpetrated domestic violence accounts for 91% of all domestic abuse prosecutions, and that 87% of all domestic homicides are perpetrated by men.
There is clearly a very current, prevalent, systemic issue with male-perpetrated violence in society. The incel movement is just another way in which this problem is being highlighted. And we need to do something about it.
What causes male-perpetrated violence?
If male-perpetrated violence is such a complex phenomenon, with many different potential factors, what hope do we have in fixing it?
Some might argue the first step is to identify one important issue and begin to chip away at the problem.
Emotional dysregulation has often been put forward as a leading cause of domestic violence. When people struggle to address their negative emotions, they are often unable to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. In men, particularly, problems with emotional regulation are common.
How can we address this problem?
Some argue that the lack of encouragement of male emotional intimacy during development is an enormous contributor to harmful patriarchal systems and the resulting normalization of male violence. As such, spaces and gatherings in which men are free to share their emotions with others are becoming more popular. Circles in which men can bare their vulnerabilities and develop intimate, platonic relationships with others hold a lot of potential. Other strategies include raising boys to not feel shame for expressing emotions other than anger, or encouraging them to form platonic, emotionally intimate relationships.
But hey, you and I both know what kind of site this is, and exactly what I’m going to suggest next:
The emotional power of psychedelics
Psychonauts have known for decades that psychedelics can bring us in touch with our emotions. Modern science is beginning to confirm that psychedelics drastically affect our psychology, potentially making us more open, more emotionally responsive, and more compassionate.
But for many, this isn’t groundbreaking knowledge. Indigenous peoples, who have used psychoactive plant medicines for longer than Western culture has existed, have understood the emotional power of psychedelics for centuries.
And even in modern rave culture, many are familiar with the loving openness that empathogens like MDMA can produce.
Could the emotional connection that psychedelics catalyze be a useful tool in helping to reduce male-perpetrated violence?
Unsurprisingly, in this modern psychedelic renaissance, there is research that backs up this intuition.
Since the early 2000’s, dozens of studies have looked at the links between psychoactive substances and violence. Without fail, these studies have suggested that psychedelics are associated with reductions in violence. See here for a recent review.
One particularly robust study of prison inmates found that historical use of psychedelics was associated with a reduced incidence of domestic violence following their release. In other words, people who had taken psychedelics were less likely to commit domestic violence crimes after being released from prison.
Now, scientists have produced some of the best evidence yet that psychedelics could reduce male-perpetrated violence; and that this effect is most likely due to the ability of psychedelics to help us understand and regulate our emotions.
The study from Michelle Thiessen and colleagues at the University of British Columbia surveyed more than 1,200 men and women about their histories of psychedelic use, their capacity for emotion regulation, and past perpetration of domestic violence.
The researchers gathered “dichotomous” measures of both psychedelic use and domestic violence: that is, they asked detailed questions about the respondent’s past and rated levels of psychedelic use and domestic violence on sliding scales, as well as in parallel, rating respondents on a simple binary scale (have/haven’t taken psychedelics; have/haven’t perpetrated domestic violence). They also rated respondents on their ability to regulate their emotions, on a sliding scale.
The researchers controlled for reports of alcohol use, as this has been highly linked with increased violence. Additionally, the analysis was carried out in parallel on both the whole group and individual genders, as there were significant inter-gender differences.
The study found that emotional dysregulation was associated with increased levels of domestic violence in men and women, confirming our understanding of the link between emotionality and violence. Interestingly, a history of psychedelic use was significantly associated with better emotional regulation – although this finding existed only in men. In other words, men who have taken psychedelics are more capable of understanding and controlling their emotions.
Importantly, men who had taken psychedelics were half as likely to have committed violence against a partner. Whereas 10% of men without psychedelic experience had committed domestic violence, only 5% of men who had taken psychedelics had a history of domestic violence. This finding was highly significant.
Maybe it’s not so simple…
There are some issues with this study we need to address before drawing conclusions.
One of the main flaws of this study is that it is a survey. No matter how robust the survey techniques are, there will always be issues with under- and over-reporting of certain traits and behaviors. Men especially will be vulnerable to social pressures and may not respond entirely accurately.
This study does not conclusively say that taking psychedelics will cause less male-perpetrated violence. It only says that men with a history of psychedelic use will be less likely to commit violent acts against their partners. This could mean that men who are predisposed to take psychedelics are just less likely to be violent. However, taking these results in conjunction with previous literature, it’s very possible that there is a dual effect occurring here: men who take psychedelics are somewhat less likely to be violent in the first place, but also experience improved emotional regulation (and therefore reduced risk of violence) as a direct result of psychedelic use.
The fact that there are significant inter-gender differences in these results is interesting. We would expect that psychedelic experience in women should also reduce their likelihood of committing domestic violence – but this is not seen in the results. However, as the authors state, the majority of female-perpetrated domestic violence is defensive, which is not controlled for in this study.
Finally, this was not an entirely accurate cross-section of society; racial minorities were not represented appropriately, and an abnormally large number of psychedelic users (31% of respondents had psychedelic experience, compared to the US average of less than 15%) were included in the sample.
Despite the moderate flaws in this study, it is a well-designed survey with a large sample size, and its overall conclusion is supported by previous research. Psychedelic use is undoubtedly associated with reduced rates of domestic violence in men, and this is probably in part due to their effects on emotional regulation.
Regardless of whether psychedelic use directly reduces violent tendencies, or whether a propensity to take psychedelics is indicative of less violent people, this study tells us important things about the roots of male-perpetrated violence.
Psychedelics are not a “Quick Fix”
As we’ve mentioned before, psychedelics should not be viewed as a “quick fix” for any issue – personal or societal. We should be wary of perpetuating a myth that psychedelics will cure all of society’s ailments. Encouraging everyone to take psychedelics will not necessarily address the problem of male-perpetrated violence, and spreading a “quick fix” mentality risks the commercialization and corporatization of psychedelics. We don’t want psychedelics to end up as just another “Take Your Pills” mindset.
Instead, we should understand psychedelics as a tool to catalyze more awareness of our problems. We can appreciate the improvements in emotional regulation that psychedelics can offer, without confusing the method with the cause.
Microdosing is one restrained approach to psychedelic therapy – very small doses taken in a semi-regular schedule are thought to open up awareness of the barriers we face in our own personal development, and the steps we can take to overcome them. In this model, psychedelics aren’t just a pharmaceutical – they’re a catalyst for personal change.
Right now, young men appear to be flocking to incel-like philosophies, threatening to perpetuate an already endemic misogynistic ideology. To combat male-perpetrated violence, we need to help isolated and unhappy men connect with their emotions. Perhaps psychedelics could show us new solutions to this systemic problem.
Interested in getting in touch with your emotions through psychedelic experience? Sign up to the Synthesis retreat in Amsterdam to experience psychedelics in a safe, comfortable environment, guided by expert psychonauts.