Barroom aggression on rise

Attitudes contribute to behaviour

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Standing in front of the Wave

Approximately once a month Marc* finds himself in a bar fight. Ranging from harmless shoving to an incident resulting in three stitches under his left eye, Marc’s physical altercations are an example of the growing culture of barroom aggression.

“I’m not really prone [to fighting], it just happens,” he explained. “I would say one fight a month for a guy isn’t being too prone. That’s pretty reasonable.”

According to Kathryn Graham, senior scientist and section head at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and psychology research professor at Western, this sort of behaviour and attitude is becoming a trend.

Graham, along with Samantha Wells, research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and assistant professor in epidemiology and bio statistics, are investigating how the bar setting contributes to aggressive behaviour.

“We found that perceptions, attitudes and beliefs were really important in how people understand aggression in the bar,” Graham said.

As part of its research, the team has conducted interviews with men who have been in bar fights, and has also observed instances of aggression in Toronto-based bars and clubs.

Graham and Wells are currently conducting a survey entitled “Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Aggression,” which has been distributed to a select number of students at Western and Fanshawe College. The study calls upon 1,250 male students from each institution to complete an online questionnaire.

“We just really hope people will participate,” Wells said. “The more people who participate, the better our research is.”

With the help of their study, Wells and Graham hope to identify ways to prevent aggressive behaviour before it starts.

“The idea behind [the study] is you train bar workers, like bouncers and other bar staff, on how to recognize problem behaviour before it starts,” Wells said.

“[We want them] learning how to engage the patrons in such a way that aggression doesn’t escalate.”

Wells and Graham have complied a list of factors contributing to aggressive behaviour at bars, based on the opinions of the males surveyed.

Among the most common instigating factors is a heightened concern with self-image, including physical appearance as well as the image one maintains among friends.

When asked if he would fight to back up any of his friends, or expect his friends to back him up if he were to fight for any reason, Marc immediately answered, “absolutely.”

According to Wells, this attitude of having to fight alongside your friends has become a part of bar culture.

“It has to do with the social consequences of inaction,” she explained. “If they did not act aggressively they would receive social disapproval from their friends.”

Anonymity was another cause of bar fights cited in the survey " men reported feeling less like individuals and more like a part of a massive crowd.

“The identity of a person can go undetected. You can slip into a crowd, people don’t know who you are, and people won’t remember you the next day [...] because they’re intoxicated,” Wells explained. “I think that’s more true than ever, because bars are so enormous now. When you’ve got 5,000 people together it’s a whole different situation.”

Marc has yet to be criminally charged for any of his physical altercations. “That’s a little more rare,” he explained when asked if he had ever been caught. “I have had charges laid twice but revoked. They just put us in the drunk tank for the night.”

A bouncer at a popular London bar who wishes to remain anonymous confirmed the lack of responsibility those who resort to violence are forced to face.

“If it’s two guys swinging fists at each other, they’ll be separated and removed. If it’s more serious, if someone is legitimately injured, the authorities are involved,” he explained. “Typically that’s rare. Typically for a standard fight, police don’t get involved.”

According to Wells, even simple nudging or pushing in a crowded bar can lead to violent altercations. While one spilled drink is not enough to start a fight, she said repeated instances could push an individual over the edge.

Marc agreed an accidental bump in the wrong direction could send fists flying.

“My friend was in line at the bar and bumped into a girl, [...] she didn’t take too kindly to that,” he said. “She grabbed her boyfriend and before long something’s being thrown and all over what? You could have walked away.”

Another theme, and one the study concentrates on heavily, is bar staff behaviour.

“Bouncers are often slow to respond in incidents of aggression as they’re escalating and they don’t always manage problems well,” Wells said.

“You have these doormen that have big egos, looking to show who’s boss [and] that can escalate it a bit,” Graham explained, while proposing how to reduce violence at the bar. “You need good employees who can communicate and not raise the testosterone level.”

According to the anonymous bouncer, however, aggression is an integral part of the job.

“What it comes down to is you need to remove someone, so you need to physically control them to extract them from the bar. But I won’t lie, I have dragged someone out of a bar when it wasn’t necessary, just to make an example,” he admitted.

“There’s going to be some pride in your ability to break up a fight, or remove someone from a bar, but that’s not to say that anyone condones unnecessary violence on a patron, because where I work that’s certainly frowned upon and could cost you your job.”

In Marc’s experience, bouncers have generally done their part in preventing aggression.

“The bouncers usually do a pretty good job of kicking them out separately. Kicking one group out, leaving the other group inside, because they don’t really want to kick both groups outside, it’s just moving the fight in front of the building.”

One of the themes identified in the study, and perhaps the most obvious contributor to bar room aggression, is a high level of intoxication. When asked why fights happen, Marc immediately cited alcohol.

“When you throw alcohol into the picture a man’s level of invincibility goes through the roof,” he said. “When you’re drunk you feel [...] invincible, and when two guys who think they’re invincible cross paths, fights happen.”

In one of her studies, Graham assesses the specific relationship between alcohol consumption and aggression levels.

“We found that the more intoxicated someone was, the more aggressive they were, but that’s until a point. After a point, someone is too drunk to be as aggressive,” she said.

Wells and Graham are hoping to use the information gained in their studies to help reduce the acceptance of violence and likelihood of barroom aggression.

*Name has been changed to protect interviewee

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