Self-Regulatory Failure and Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration

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Principal investigator:

Eli J. Finkel

Northwestern University



Sample size: 755

Field period: 7/9/2009-9/8/2009


This research examined intimate partner violence (IPV). Approximately 750 participants were randomly assigned to report either on their violent behaviors toward their spouse or on their violent impulses toward their spouse. As predicted, participants were approximately three times more likely to experience a violent impulse than to enact a violent behavior. These findings dovetail with our views (a) that people typically self-regulate their aggressive urges and (b) that self-regulatory failure is a major precipitating cause of IPV perpetration (with people enacting aggressive behavior against their own behavioral preferences).

These views stand in contrast to prevailing views of IPV, which emphasize that individuals perpetrate IPV because society socializes them to do so. One influential perspective suggests that men and women perpetrate violence against intimate partners because society tells them that such perpetration is "perfectly appropriate" (Gelles & Straus, 1988, p. 26; also see Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). Another influential perspective suggests that men are socialized to perpetrate IPV while women are not (Dobash & Dobash, 1979). Various other perspectives, including social learning theory (Kwong, Bartholomew, Henderson & Trinke, 2003; cf. Bandura, 1973), are broadly consistent with this idea that society trains individuals to enact IPV.

Consistent with our perspective, strong commitment to one's marriage predicts lower rates of IPV perpetration (presumably because people are reticent to damage the relationship), and the discrepancy between violent impulses and violent behavior decreases for both sexes as the potential perpetrator gets taller (and presumably stronger).


H1: Violent impulses toward one’s spouse are much more common than violent behavior is.

H2: Frequency of IPV perpetration is higher among potential perpetrators who are higher in anxious or avoidant attachment or who are lower in relationship commitment or self-control.

Experimental Manipulations

Whether participants reported on the violent impulses they had experienced toward their spouse or on the violent behaviors they had enacted over the previous year.


Intimate partner violence – either the temptation to perpetrate or actual perpetration.

Summary of Results

As predicted, participants were much more likely—2.87 times more likely (24.97% vs. 8.70%), to be precise—to experience an urge toward physically aggressive behavior toward their spouse over the preceding year than they were to enact such behavior. As noted above, the discrepancy between violent impulses and violent behavior decreased for both sexes as the potential perpetrator gets taller (and presumably stronger).

When focusing exclusively on those participants who reported on their violent behaviors (as opposed to their violent impulses) over the preceding year, results generally supported our predictions. For example, strong attachment anxiety and strong attachment avoidance both predicted greater frequency of perpetration, and strong relationship commitment predicted lesser frequency of perpetration. In contrast to predictions, dispositional self-control did not significantly predict perpetration.

We also tested a number of hypotheses of secondary interest and found interesting results. For example, participants who had a medical history of depression or anxiety perpetrated IPV at greater rates than did participants who did not. Perhaps even more interesting, the condition (impulses vs. behavior) x depression/anxiety interaction effect was robust, demonstrating that people with depression/anxiety perpetrate more IPV than do people without depression/anxiety, even though the two groups do not seem to differ in their tendencies to experience violent impulses. These findings are consistent with the view that the elevated tendencies toward IPV perpetration among individuals with depression/anxiety are due less to their tendencies to experience frequent violent urges than to their tendency to succumb to such urges when they arise.


Finkel, Eli J., DeWall, C. Nathan, Slotter, Erica B., Oaten, Megan, and Foshee, Vangie A.. "Self-regulatory failure and intimate partner violence perpetration." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 97(3), Sep 2009, 483-499. doi: 10.1037/a0015433