In his 1999 book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty Roy Baumeister devotes a chapter to dispelling the commonly held idea that violence emerged from low self-esteem. He referred to a variety of studies and sources showing that where there is real low self-esteem violence and aggression are not common. Yet those with very high and stable self-esteem are also not prone to violence. To put it in superheroic terms we all know Superman is not a guy who wants to be violent because Superman! He's nearly indestructible and so good-natured only a sociopath would want to cross him. Superman is the ideal high ego person who actually lives up to the hype and is well-regarded.
Of course Baumeister eschews fictional depictions of good and evil in favor of case studies and research and historical figures. He notes that the people most likely to commit violence or to act aggressively are those who have a high but malleable (even volatile) self esteem. People with bipolar disorder tend to be most violent and aggressive not in their depressive cycle but their manic cycle. Income and status inequality are huge leading indicators that domestic abuse will happen, most especially when men "marry up".
Baumeister is careful to note that when men from low economic and social strata marry up but turn out to be hugely successful (think the high school graduate who becomes a millionaire, corporate tycoon, or success somebody) the odds of abuse significantly drop (six times less likely to happen by Baumeister's account). Abuse is far more likely when the wife is of a higher social or economic status than the man and the man has a "good" education and particularly if he considers himself to have a lot of potential. Physical abuse ends up being a temptation succumbed to a partner who wants to even the playing field. The reason I now use "partner" instead of husband is because Baumeister in his chapter on egotism and revenge points out that in lesbian couples status inequality is even more indicative that domestic abuse will happen.
So here I can't resist being the single guy who puts this terrible Christianese spin on the warning to not be unequally yoked. The usual Christianese argument is that Christians shouldn't date non-Christians but let's play with the idea that even among believers an unequal yoking is a foolish idea because of the potential for future abuse within a marriage. A combination of status inequality between a husband and a wife, particularly in marriages where the man believes the man should be king of his castle, status inequality within the marriage is a strong predictor of physical and emotional abuse.
Nowhere is the tendency to resort to verbal and physical violence in response to status threats more evident then in young men. Surprise? No, of course not. As Baumeisterhas put it not just in his book but in subsequent presentations men tend to creature cultures and social systems in which honor and prestige become zero sum games. Attempting to create social units in which there can never be a zero sum game works in family settings but the rest of the world simply does not, will not, and probably cannot function at that level all the time. Inequalities will invariably exist. In men there is so much honor to go around.
What Baumeister drives home in his chapter on egotism and vengeance is that high but unstable self-esteem is where most violence and aggression often come from. What this means at a practical level is if a man, for instance, is in a setting where he controls the social conditions and terms of interaction he can be very friendly, generous, thoughtful, considerate. No sooner has his competence been questioned, however, then he gets into what Baumeister and others have at times called the "badass" mode. The stance of the badass is not necessarily to always be fighting but to win select fights to establish prestige and influence. The goal of the stance of the badass is to AVOID fights except for the ones that retain his prestige. Should he come across a fight he knows he can't possibly win then playing the cool customer who's above the fray may be a wiser move, if he's got a modicum of self-control.
But if people he considers beneath him, even slightly, question his competence, fighting ability, or social status, the kid gloves come off. If the fight is over a specific act there is a danger of escalation, if a fight is over a perceived injury to one's pride or self esteem then it can spiral into a retaliatory act that has little to do with the actual occasion of offense.
Let me pick a story from 2 Samuel. You probably know the one, David and Bathsheba. David sends for Bathsheba and has sex with her. She turns out to be pregnant and David arranges for Uriah the Hittite to be killed in battle. When Nathan confronts David about his sin he confronts David about taking a man's wife and killing him. Bu tnotice that this is not where Nathan stops. Nathan explains that because David privately exploited the power and influence of his position over Israel to please himself the punishment would be public disgrace? Why? Because David's role was to be as a leader of God's people and to fight battles for Israel.
That he abdicated going into battle himself "in the season when kings went to war" and stayed home already bodes ill within the narrative. David's private use of his power to take what he wanted and kill people who were obstacles to his having his way in secret would lead to public shame, disgrace, and an insurrection. If we merely look at what Nathan said as a mechanistic declaration we'll miss that Nathan was addressing not merely the incidents with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite but a problem in David's attitude toward the throne itself. He'd done worse than merely "get soft" by not going to battle when he could have, he'd become selfish. He also did not always succeed in administrating regional justice.
This was an issue not merely in the egregious failure to punish Amnon (his son) for raping Tamar (his daughter), it became an issue in David's rule as a whole which Absalom would eventually exploit. Readers who wish to simply declare that God made things stink for David big time because of the Bathsheba incident. I would propose that is not taking the entire narrative of Samuel/Kings quite seriously enough. To say the sword would not depart from the household of David was saying that strife would span generations, not merely that David's own reign was going to hit some bumpy times. Now if OT scholars correct me on that point that's cool. I am writing as a layman here.
David's failure became public because of a piling on of failure after failure in public. In fact if anything we could suggest, at a purely narrative level, that part of David's problem was that he trusted that because he did that one thing the sword wouldn't depart from his household and that enemies would arise within his own house. But did he keep any of this stuff in mind when Amnon raped Tamar? Can't say for sure. Did he keep any of this in mind as things went south with Absalom? He was still reluctant to have anyone harm his son. Absalom does seem to embody a vengeance in which he murdered his brother for raping his sister. A crime of that nature warranted punishment, a punishment David wasn't willing to mete out, but we are not necessarily told that Absalom's punishment was just. Absalom, like Saul, was willing to make a monument to himself. Perhaps, to be a bit speculative here, there are more than a few figures in the Bible who could be said to have very high but unstable egos and, perhaps not too shockingly, they tend to be violent men who use violence to solve their problems. Of course let's not forget some of them were men who loved the Lord.
Now, back to the modern-day badass, the man who is apt to resort to aggression to restabilize his ego, Baumeister proposes that if a man rates himself as a 9 or a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 but people repeatedly assess him to be somewhere around the range of 5 or 6 then he will constantly be reacting aggressively to slights against him. Baumeister emphasizes this is not a reaction of someone who has low self-esteem. This is the reaction of a man with inflated self-worth, an exaggerated self-esteem, a man who may be construed as more hat than cattle. People with stable high self-esteem or stable low self-esteem don't have an incentive to fight. They know they rock or they know they suck. But people who are sure they rock and are better than you but whom you make a critical remark about, those folks are going to fight. Their ego very much depends on fending off any sense of attack on credibility. If you disrespect the man he'll make you pay for it. If you're accomodating and go along with things and let him be the master of the hour he could be a very nice guy. Question him or show him up on anything his ego is seriously invested in, though, and beware. He might physically or verbally attack you.
Baumeister notes that violence and aggression are even more likely to happen in cases where men with high but unstable self-esteem are in settings where others are watching. He describes a case in which a small younger man was physically jabbed by an older man. The young man gave the older man an aggressive stare and quietly (this part is important) asked the older man what he wanted. The older man dropped his head. The young man explained that he knew that in a straight up fight he'd lose so what he did was make sure to confidently address the older, bigger man privately so that there would be no crowd to egg on a fight. There are conflicts that can be resolved privately amongst dudes because no one's ego has automatically been put on the line. If someone's ego is vulnerable enough in a public setting they might even resort to, say, a pre-emptive attack. Baumeister says this is because a true threat to one's ego is dangerous enough to the bully that he will be inclined to attack at the slightest provocation. If it seems like you're ABOUT to attack his ego he'll attack you whether or not what you said or did was anything like an actual attack on his ego.
Now the thing is that if you don't present a threat to the ego of such a man, he will come off as warm, inviting, sociable, even friendly. If you meet a man who seems humble and generous and friendly when he meets you in some setting he agrees to you may not be dealing with a truly humble man. If you meet with a man who is willing to meet with you on terms that are not helpful to him or that do not make him look particularly good or in control or comfortable you may not be dealing with a humble man but the odds are better that a man who is willing to meet you in circumstances that aren't entirely of his choosing is a tiny bit more likely to actually be humble than the man who meets on terms of his choosing. I wonder how Christians might consider this idea in terms of the Incarnation ... .
Baumeister and others have done a lot of work to point out that the idea that bullies have low self-esteem is emphatically false. They are frequently egotistical and consider themselves to be better people than we would. They are apt to become aggressive and violent when our report of them, or our response to them, tells them we don't think they are as awesome as they've been convincing themselves they are. In one of those peculiar paradoxes of how egotism can spawn aggression and violence violent men can often justify their violence by citing that they have been disrespected by people who needed to know their real place. When it comes time to put someone down or downgrade their assessment of themselves history has shown that the bully will almost always prefer to put someone down if he thinks he can get away with it.