ST. LOUIS (CBS St. Louis/AP) –  A threat has arisen in multiple cities throughout the nation that has garnered significant media attention and left many fearful of being harmed. For some, however, it’s all in good fun.

The rules of what has been termed the “knockout game” are as simple as they are unsettling: young participants attempt to “sucker punch” innocent passers-by with the objective of rendering their target unconscious.

Last week, reports surfaced of a 23-year-old college student who was punched in St. Louis while making her way through a crowd. CBS St. Louis learned that she was hit in the face by a stranger during her walk, an unprovoked attack that resulted in a double fracture of the bone located under her left eye.

News of that and other recent incidents has spread, in large part, because others involved in the attacks record and share them online for posterity. As reports of incidents were filed in increasing numbers and national news media organizations took notice, a New York state legislator called for a crack-down on the violent “game” last Thursday – a call in which many others have joined.

But while many are trying to figure out how to put an end to it, others are trying to work through what elements of the “knockout game” appeal to those who choose to “play” it in the first place.

Authorities and psychologists say such assaults have been occurring for decades — or longer — and it’s played mostly by impulsive teenage boys looking to impress their friends. Some experts, however, feel that other psychological elements are involved.

John Jay College’s youth criminal justice specialist Jeffrey Butts told CBS News that the young perpetrators are, more often than not, trying to “prove their manhood and, ironically, what they ultimately end up doing is proving that they’re still children.”

“The victims are someone who the young people consider to be an ‘other,'” Butts said. “That could be a racial difference, it could be a religious difference, it could be an age difference, it just could be a class difference.”

Dr. Jessica Borelli, an assistant professor of psychology at Pomona College, told CBS St. Louis that the age of those behind the attacks is significant, in particular because of adolescents’ general vulnerabilities to group thinking.

“The psychology of group behavior generally demonstrates that people can become disinhibited and deindividuated by being a member of a group, meaning that they may be willing to do something when part of a group that they would never be willing to do alone,” she said. “The group context can then be thought of as facilitating this heinous behavior.”

Borelli added, “Depending on the nature of these groups, the offending youth may also be motivated by the desire to appear cool or tough, or to go along with the more dominant members of groups.”

Butts also highlighted the roles brain chemistry and development might play in the attacks.

He noted, “We know from brain studies that the part of your brain that gets fired up through excitement and thrill-seeking actually develops more quickly and fires up more quickly than the other part of your brain, which comes along a few years later and is about judgment and discretion.”

The “impulsivity of teens” could be a factor as well, according to Borelli, who is also a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in treating both children and adolescents. She also said that the incidents called to mind the once-popular “choking game” played by teens in order to achieve a quick high.

“Many teens are looking for the newest thrill, even if that means engaging in bizarre or self-harming behavior,” she said. “Further, this trend has also garnered media attention, which ironically may make engaging in the knockout game more attractive to teens.”

While some have highlighted the possible motives for participating in the “knockout game,” others have also criticized various elements of media coverage on the attacks, blaming the resurgence of attention for the spread of misinformation and the fostering of increased tensions between different age or racial groups.

In a separate interview with WNYC on The Brian Lehrer Show, Butts noted the danger of referring to the phenomenon as a “game” in the first place.

“If these things were called ‘random attacks’ or ‘sudden assaults’ or something other than the word ‘game’ it may communicate a different message,” he was quoted as saying.

Baylor University educator Alan Noble, in a column for Patheos, further criticized press coverage of the incidents in stating that “[w]e need to be honest and accurate about these crimes, neither sharing the hysteria and racial fear-mongering nor trivializing the reality of the[m].”

“Here’s the fascinating thing about this ‘spreading’ trend: nobody seems to have any evidence that it’s spreading, or that it’s new, or that it’s racially motivated, or that black youths are the ones typically responsible, or that whites are typically targeted,” he additionally asserted.

Borelli, though, observed that “[r]egardless of whether or not these acts are motivated by racial tensions, it is almost inevitable that they will inspire greater mistrust between ethnic and racial groups.”

“It is likely that members of targeted groups will experience greater fear of members of the groups making the attacks,” she noted. “Further, it is also likely that innocent members of the racial/ethnic groups committing the violent acts will become targeted for retributions, either in terms of overt aggression or subtle micro-aggressions and hostility.”

Borelli added: “The inter-group mistrust that these attacks could cause may ultimately be the most toxic part of the knockout game.”

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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